BANFF – Mass vaccination clinics will be held in Banff next week as the region sits as the COVID-19 hotspot in Alberta.
The Town of Banff has commissioned Aceso Medical to provide a walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinic in 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.
The walk-in clinic will be available for residents requiring any dose, including boosters for people who have had a second dose at least five months ago. Currently, 10,338 people in Banff and Lake Louise have been vaccinated with at least a first dose and 9,252 are double vaccinated.
“We will obviously take anyone who is there for any shot,” said Alison Gerrits, the Town of Banff’s deputy director of emergency management, noting Alberta Health cards are not required.
“But certainly the intention is to try to give people better access to the booster dose.”
The most up-to-date figures provided by the province of Alberta are 131 active cases for Banff and Lake Louise; however, the number of cases is expected to be way higher than these official ones due to changes in testing and reporting requirements.
Currently, PCR testing through Alberta Health Services has been restricted to high-risk groups, with other Albertans with COVID symptoms asked to complete at-home rapid antigen testing. Those results are not collected by the province.
Positive cases based on the official numbers for Banff and Lake Louise represent 974 active cases per 100,000 population, making Banff National Park the region with the highest per capita cases anywhere in Alberta.
Wastewater surveillance data, however, can show the trend of cases of the COVID-19 virus being detected in Banff – and it’s currently off the charts. The information can be found on the Town of Banff’s COVID page on its website.
“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 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 essential service staff like 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 we’re hovering just under 10 per cent of our workforce is testing positive with rapid tests,” said Gerrits on Monday (Jan. 3). “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 they have folks who are testing positive can isolate – and that’s key to managing this.”
While there have been no formal reports of businesses shutting their doors to the Town of Banff, 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.”
Regardless, Gerrits said the reality is there is no formal process in place for this to happen, noting the province of Alberta previously managed the intake for isolation requirements.
“They were the ones who approved or didn’t approve someone for isolation and then referred them to the facilities that we had set up in the community,” she said.
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.
The province has announced new isolation requirements. Instead of the previous 10-day requirement, people who are double vaccinated must isolate for five days from the start of symptoms or until they resolve, whichever is longer.
The Town of Banff is pleading with residents to help stop the spread and support others by following isolation requirements.
“The most important thing people can do right now, given the spread and the clear apparent prevalence of COVID 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.”
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.”
The Banff and Lake Louise region peaked at 186 cases on Nov. 28, 2020. There have been 1,267 cases in the region since the pandemic began, including 1,135 recoveries and one death.
In neighbouring Canmore, there were 79 active cases as of Dec. 28. There were 17 in the Municipal District of Bighorn, which includes Harvie Heights, Lac Des Arcs, Exshaw and Stoney Nakoda.
Again, the numbers are likely well beyond this because of changes to testing and reporting requirements.