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Pedestrians walk past a physical distancing sign in Calgary on Dec. 12, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

COVID-19 infections in Alberta appear to have plateaued in the past week, a hint of optimism in a province facing the highest rates in the country.

But the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, and experts said infection and hospitalization rates are nowhere near where the province needs them to be to get the crisis under control and even bending the curve down won’t take the pressure off the health care system for some time.

Dr. Hinshaw said the province’s reproductive number, or R value, was at 0.98 for the past week. An R value of one means that every person with COVID-19 infects one other person on average. A number above that indicates infections are growing, while a number below one signals decreasing infections.

Alberta has been averaging just under 1,700 cases a day for the past week, though on Monday the province set a new record with 1,887 new infections.

“What last week’s values seem to indicate is that cases plateaued,” Dr. Hinshaw said on Monday. “This is certainly better than an increase but the plateau is not enough. ... What we need to achieve together is several weeks of an R-value well below 1, with a corresponding increase in new case numbers.”

The province introduced modest restrictions about three weeks ago that included a ban on indoor gatherings and capacity limits on some businesses, but later acknowledged that they were not enough. The government imposed more severe measures last week, including banning all social gatherings; closing in-person dining, gyms and other businesses; significantly limiting retail capacity; and introducing a provincewide mask mandate.

Most of the new rules went into effect over the weekend, meaning they won’t affect infection numbers for a week or two. The effect on hospitalizations will take longer, because new cases announced now often won’t result in hospital and ICU admissions for another two or three weeks.

Dr. Hinshaw said she wants to see the R-value come down to 0.8. She said her office will prepare recommendations for cabinet laying out what combination of R-value and daily infection numbers would mean that the province could ease up on restrictions.

There were 716 people in hospital, including 136 in intensive care. Alberta’s hospitalization numbers have doubled in a little more than two weeks and the province has the second-highest per capita rates of

Craig Jenne, an infectious disease expert at the University of Calgary, said the recent slowdown of COVID-19 infections is encouraging but it’s too early to know if it is a sign of lasting change.

“Despite the fact that our rate is now slightly below one, we still put up a record number of cases today, so that has to be kept in perspective,” said Dr. Jenne.

“We’re going to need to lower that R-value quite a bit, and we need to keep it low for for an extended period of time. We have to get them down to where the rate of spread does not stress and jeopardize the health care system.

He also said any progress could be quickly reversed over the holidays if people don’t follow public-health orders.

Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said it’s too early to draw any conclusions from the recent infection numbers since fluctuations are normal. And he said even small decreases in infection rates won’t be enough to reduce the strain on the health system.

“This is in the context of us already being at the end of a cliff in terms of health care capacity, and we really don’t have any wiggle room at all,” he said.

“For infections to continue at the current rate and for hospital admissions to continue at the current rate, that is completely unsustainable and will be devastating.”

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