BANFF – The Bow Valley is experiencing record-high COVID-19 case counts with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, making the area the No. 1 per capita hotspot for the virus in all of Alberta.
As of Jan. 5, the official provincial statistics show Banff and Lake Louise’s active case count more than doubled within days to 263; Canmore had 187 and the Municipal District of Bighorn, which includes Harvie Heights, Exshaw, Lac Des Arcs and Stoney Nakoda at Morley had 37 active cases.
However, the true number of cases is far higher due to provincial changes in testing and reporting requirements. PCR testing through Alberta Health Services has been restricted to high-risk groups only, with other Albertans with COVID symptoms asked to complete at-home rapid antigen testing.
With the alarming rise in case counts, which includes the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the Town of Banff has commissioned Aceso Medical to provide a walk-in vaccine clinic in Banff council chambers for Banff residents only on Sunday, Jan. 9, and Monday, Jan. 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on both days.
Officials say the vaccine clinics – which do not require residents to present an Alberta health card – will be available for residents requiring any dose, including boosters for people who have had a second dose at least five months ago.
“We will obviously take anyone who is there for any shot,” said Alison Gerrits, the Town of Banff’s deputy director of emergency management. “But certainly the intention is to try to give people better access to the booster dose.”
Alberta is reporting more than 37,000 active cases province-wide, with 470 people in hospital, including 72 in intensive care as of Jan. 5. Again, these numbers are based only on PCR tests.
Banff and Lake Louise have the highest per capita active case count in the province at 1,955 per 100,000 people. Canmore’s per capita case rate is 1,130 per 100,000.
Provincial health officials last week said it’s believed the province’s PCR testing program captured about one in four cases of COVID-19 in previous waves of the pandemic. In the fourth wave, that changed to about one in six. The province indicated that the ratio is dropping even more with the Omicron variant.
If PCR testing was now only capturing one in 10 cases, for example, that would mean that about two out of every 10 residents in Banff National Park could be infected with COVID-19.
In Banff, the wastewater surveillance data for COVID-19 shows Banff is off the charts.
“We’re not really entirely sure how much we can rely anymore on the data for PCR-approved tests given the guidelines for testing; it’s very hard to access a PCR test now,” said Gerrits.
“We are now really looking at the wastewater data, and certainly it is extremely high at this point in time.”
The Town of Banff is pleading with residents to help stop the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus by encouraging people to get vaccinated, limiting in-person contacts, following provincial isolation guidelines and taking rapid tests.
“The most important thing people can do right now given the spread and the clear apparent prevalence of COVID-19 in the Bow Valley is to please stay home if you have any symptoms whatsoever,” said Gerrits.
“If you test negative on a rapid test but you have symptoms, it’s imperative that you isolate because we’re seeing individuals with symptoms who test negative for the first couple of days and then they proceed to test positive.”
While reduced severity of the Omicron variant to the individual may mean it’s tempting not to take this wave of the pandemic seriously, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, is warning against that.
She said Alberta need only look no further than Ontario’s current experience to understand why – where case counts have exploded due to Omicron and that province has moved to online learning for school kids, closed indoor dining and gyms and paused all non-urgent procedures at hospitals.
“With case counts far exceeding anything we have ever seen before, the sheer volume of cases means that daily hospitalizations are beginning to escalate,” said Hinshaw during her Jan. 4 briefing.
“The population risk is high even as the individual risk is lower, and Ontario is only a little more than a week ahead of us,” she added.
“The actions we are all taking now are critical. We continue to monitor the experiences of other jurisdictions and it is too soon to know exactly how Omicron will impact Alberta.”
Despite the threat to the health care system, Premier Jason Kenney does not appear interested in implementing any new restrictions.
“We will continue to monitor the situation closely,” said Premier Kenney during the Jan. 4 COVID-19 update, adding the committee is reviewing data from across the country and around the world.
“As in the past, we regard restrictions as a last and limited resource given the damaging effect that restrictions have on the broader health of society.”
Meanwhile, the Town of Banff has closed Town Hall and the fire department building to public access until further notice during this spike in COVID-19 cases.
The goal is to ensure the municipality can maintain uninterrupted essential services to the community and reduce the risk of spreading the highly contagious Omicron variant to firefighters, enforcement personnel and emergency services.
Gerrits said the Town is tracking the COVID-19 impact on staff very closely. The municipality has roughly 300 full- and part-time employees in the busy summer months, dropping to about 265 the rest of the year.
“As of this morning (Jan. 3), we’re hovering just under 10 per cent of our workforce is testing positive with rapid tests,” said Gerrits. “I believe the same would be true in many places.”
The Town of Banff is also in contact with the Banff and Lake Louise Hospitality Association and several of the bigger businesses in town.
The Chateau Lake Louise is one such business that has been hard hit with staff infected by COVID; however, the province is currently not reporting all outbreaks.
Gerrits said some of the employers in town are reporting that many staff are away from work due to testing positive with their rapid tests.
She said the community does have access to rapid tests through the business program that was launched many months ago by the province.
“We’re very happy to see so many of the local business community did take up the offer by the province on that program,” said Gerrits.
“As a result, folks are able to incorporate that rapid testing as part of their protocols to ensure that folks who are testing positive can isolate – and that’s key to managing this.”
While there have been no formal reports to the Town of Banff of businesses shutting their doors, Gerrits said she has been told anecdotally of temporary closure signs going up from time to time.
“I think it’s going be one of those things where folks are potentially going to see opening-and-closing scenarios depending on how staff are being impacted,” she said.
The Town of Banff had been advocating for isolation spaces, particularly for those in shared living accommodations, but has not received any word from the province on whether or not that will occur.
Gerrits said the municipality has not received any formal requests from the community for isolation spaces, although there have been some queries as to whether or not they are coming.
“To be honest, at this stage of the pandemic with so many individuals impacted, I am not even sure what impact it would have,” she said. “It would be such a limited number available for the volume of folks who are potentially positive at this point in time.”
In previous waves, the Banff YWCA and Banff Caribou Properties set up isolation spaces, as did the Town of Banff at The Banff Centre.
Gerrits said none of these spaces are currently available for this use.
“We also just don’t have the framework at this point to be able to offer such a service because there’s no formal program or funding attached to operating that kind of service at this point,” she said.
Although anecdotal information suggests the impact of the new Omicron variant is less severe on positive cases for those who are vaccinated, medical and health care professionals say the data is not conclusive.
Gerrits said what is known is that the high transmission rate will result in some people needing hospitalization, likely those not fully immunized, and the need to protect Alberta’s health care system and emergency services is, therefore, critical.
“If even a smaller percentage of individuals require hospitalization, the provincial impact could be as bad, if not worse, than in previous waves in terms of impacts to our health care system,” said Gerrits.
“I know it’s hard, people are tired, people are fed up, and they want it to be over…but that’s obviously something we’re concerned about, not only for our own community, but for the province as a whole.”