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AHS approves vaccines for 18 and over in Banff National Park

Lobbying efforts pay off for Banff and Lake Louise residents with AHS approving vaccines for those aged 18-39.
20210424 Banff Avenue 0054
Pedestrians walk along Banff Avenue on Saturday (April 24). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BANFF – Alberta Health Services is now providing COVID-19 vaccines for people aged 18-39 in Banff National Park, meaning approximately 80 per cent of the tourist town’s population can now be be vaccinated.

Bookings for this age group must be made by calling 811. Appointments cannot be made through the AHS online tool at this time. All other eligible groups, including those 40 and over, can make appointments online www.alberta.ca/vaccine.

Officials say more mass vaccination clinics for locals have been added at the Fenlands recreation centre, including May 10-14 – with  possibly even  more dates.

Mayor Karen Sorensen was thrilled to hear the news, saying there have been  lobbying efforts for months to get mass vaccinations in the community where many people live in congregate housing.

“If everybody 30 and over got a vaccination in Banff, we’d be at 60 per cent of our population; 20 and over we’d be at 83 per cent and with 18, let’s be optimistic, 80 per cent of our populations can be vaccinated,” she said.

The COVID-19 testing assessment centre run out of the provincial public health unit is being temporarily suspended on Friday (May 7) so there are more health-care workers to facilitate mass vaccination clinics at the Fenlands.

However,  testing will still be available seven days a week at the pop-up testing facility located outside Mineral Springs Hospital in order to respond to demand for swabs.

Alison Gerrits, who sits on the Town of Banff’s emergency management team, said there will be a vast increase in the number of daily vaccination appointments available at the Fenlands.

“There will be lots of chances for folks to get vaccinated locally here in Banff,” she said

At the end of April, Banff was the No. 1 COVID-19 hotspot in the province, with more than 1,200 cases per 100,000 people. On at least one day, it was thought to be the per capita hotspot in all of North America.

With much of Banff's workforce living in communal accommodations, Banff's isolation facilities at The Banff Centre and  YWCA were stretched to capacity.

Banff Lodging Company applied to have the Red Carpet Inn designated as a quarantine facility for the community, and more recently, got authorized to operate another of its hotels as an isolation space if needed.

There were 104 active cases in Banff and Lake Louise on Tuesday (May 4) – the most updated statistics available before the Outlook went to press – and Banff's active case rate per capita was 773 per 100,000.

Sunshine Village, which is shooting for a May 24 closure, and Mount Norquay, which closed mid-April, are listed as outbreak sites on the AHS website.  The Moose Hotel and Suites also remains on the outbreak list.

Outbreaks aren’t declared over until four weeks have passed since the last case was identified, and not all listed outbreaks necessarily have current transmission happening.

While ongoing calls to the province for mass vaccinations and additional quarantine spaces have been successful, the municipality continues to flag concerns that the COVID-19 case count is higher than reported. 

Officials say they have suspected there’s been under-reporting of positive cases of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic because of Banff’s transient workforce, many who may have health care cards from other provinces.

“This has been an ongoing challenge and it has been something we have flagged from the beginning,” said Gerrits.

In some respects, Gerrits said it was easier to get a better handle on the true number of active cases during the last COVID-19 wave in Banff and Lake Louise, which peaked at 192 active cases at the end of November.

“The reason for that was that before we had the provincial assessment centre located here, our local clinics were doing the bulk of the testing, and when we realized this was an issue, outbreak codes were tied to the clinics,” she said.

“All tests processed through those clinics were assigned an outbreak code, which tied them back to Banff regardless of whether the person had a health card from out-of-province."

Since the pandemic began, there have been 782 reported COVID-19 cases in Banff and Lake Louise.

There were 265 new cases diagnosed in April alone, which matched last November's count exactly when there were also 265 cases confirmed that month.

"In the month of April, shockingly, it's identical case counts to what we saw back in November," Gerrits said.

"In the last week we have absolutely identified [ a smaller] number of cases diagnosed as compared to the previous two weeks – so 53 cases were identified between April 25 and May 1," she added, noting that compares to 83 new cases the week of April 18-24 and 77 new cases between April 11-17. 

Councillor Peter Poole, who initially brought up the concern of under-reporting at a recent council meeting, said he wanted to find out the estimate of cases being under-reported for Banff National Park.

“There’s a real big difference if there’s five out 164 cases or if it’s 50 out of 164 cases – that’s not good enough,” he said.

Coun. Poole said he suspects council would be willing to throw its political support behind writing a letter to the province of Alberta to fix this data coding problem.

“If it’s a problem at Precision Labs in Alberta reporting to AHS – AHS is paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars – and they’ve got a database that could change that in a heartbeat,” he said.

“If you need our political support, our council will write a letter on that without hesitation, I am sure. Let’s get this solved.”

Gerrits said she wouldn’t feel comfortable giving an estimate as to what the under-reported case count may be.

But she assured council the municipality is trying its best to align the cases that get diagnosed on a daily basis with what lands at the Bow Valley Primary Care Network.

“We continue to see if we can sort it out,” she said.

“I think potentially the answer could lie in generating more of these outbreak codes.”

The Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which declared a state of emergency on April 25, is reporting similar concerns as Banff.

“In both of our cases, both in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and ID9, we likely are somewhat under-reported as to what is actually the case on the ground,” Gerrits said.

In neighbouring Canmore, there were 54 active cases, and 30 in the Municipal District of Bighorn, which includes Harvie Heights, Exshaw, Lac Des Arcs and Stoney Nakoda at Morley, as of May 4.