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COVID-19 hospitalizations three times higher in rural Alberta

"Most of the people that are in ICU that are requiring that extreme care, most of those people are unvaccinated."
dr deena hinshaw
Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said COVID-19 rates are high across the entire province and rural Alberta is seeing three times the hospitalization rate as their urban counterparts. CHRIS SCHWARZ/Government of Alberta

Rural Albertans are being hospitalized at three times the rate of their urban counterparts during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Wednesday, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the province didn't introduce regional restrictions when the slate of new restrictions came in due to the high hospitalization rates in rural communities. 

"This is a province wide challenge that requires province wide solutions. This is why we're implementing provincial measures, and why it is critical that we all embrace them regardless of where we live," Hinshaw said. 

Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities Association, said the high hospitalization rates in rural Alberta are likely directly tied to low vaccination rates.

The conversation is really around those unvaccinated in rural Alberta, McLauchlin said, rather than the entirety of the population 

"Most of the people that are in ICU that are requiring that extreme care, most of those people are unvaccinated."

McLaughlin said rural regions across North America are seeing low vaccination rates, which are driving higher rates of infection during this fourth wave. 

A lot of people have been getting sick and not getting tested, McLauchlin said, and then when they are encountering the health-care system for the first time, they are already having severe symptoms of COVID-19

"Until they interface with the medical system they're not identified as having COVID-19," McLauchlin said. 

Another issue is the removal of parts of the contact tracing system, with contact tracers not informing close contacts of exposures.

"We're kind of flying blind here, trying to find a way to deal with it," McLauchlin said. 

To slow the spread of COVID-19 in rural Alberta, vaccinations need to increase, but Mclauchlin said that is a long-term solution right now, as it could take 16 weeks for all those getting vaccinated to get their second doses and have full immunity. 

Intensive care units (ICUs) can't hold on while vaccination rates increase, McLauchlin said, as they are already at capacity.

"This is going to be a long haul and I think that's what I'm most concerned about is we're going to see it for a lot longer in rural Alberta, and it may not really spike as hard in the urban centres, just because of vaccination rates.

As of Friday, Alberta announced there was a major spike in provincial vaccination rates and on the first day since the vaccine passport announcement, there were 28,158 doses administered across the province, compared to 9,750 the day before, which is highest single-day total of vaccinations given out since July 23. 

There were 2,020 new cases reported on Friday in the province with a positivity rate of 11.7 per cent. There are currently 19,201 active cases. 

Some 215 Albertans are in the ICU and there have been 18 new deaths. 

Unvaccinated Albertans make up 70 per cent of new case in the province. Of the 911 patients in the hospital, 677 are unvaccinated. Of the 215 patients in ICU, 193 are unvaccinated. 

The ICU capacity in the province, including surge beds created for COVID-19, is sitting at 81 per cent, down from 87 per cent on Thursday. Not including surge beds, ICU capacity is at 150 per cent, while on Thursday it was at 155 per cent. 

The number of patients in Alberta ICUs has increased by 13 per cent in the last week and Alberta is asking for support from other provinces to transfer patients who need care. 

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Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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