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Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton on March 20, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta is increasing the mandatory quarantine period for people who live with someone who has tested positive for a COVID-19 variant to 24 days from the current 14.

The new quarantine rules will be the strictest in Canada, where the number of variant cases identified has been growing, including more than 50 in Alberta.

“We are being extra cautious to reduce the chance of infection spreading widely into the community,” Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said on Tuesday.

The British variant has been circulating in Britain since November and is now the dominant version of the virus there. Studies show it is more contagious than the original virus, and public-health officials are increasingly worried about mutations being more resistant to vaccines.

In Alberta, health officials say for a person who tests positive for a variant, the situation is no different than any other positive COVID-19 case. They need to isolate for 10 days or until symptoms resolve, whichever is longer.

But to create an additional buffer around those with more contagious COVID-19 strains, if that person stays in a home they share with other people instead of isolating somewhere else, their household contacts must now quarantine for 24 days. The past requirement was 14-days – set in place to cover the incubation period of the virus, in case of exposure.

Dr. Hinshaw said people will be made aware of government programs for hotel isolation or quarantine so they don’t have to stay at home. She also said Alberta Health Services has formed a dedicated contact-tracing team that is monitoring for cases of variants first identified in the U.K., and South Africa, and for other emerging strains. She said contacts are being asked to be tested twice for COVID-19.

Alberta’s case numbers and hospitalizations have trended downward since significant pandemic restrictions were introduced in December. But on Tuesday, Dr. Hinshaw said Alberta officials have found 50 cases of the variant identified in Britain, and seven cases of the variant identified in South Africa. Most are connected to travel, but eight are in five households with no known travel link so far.

Four of the variant cases are linked to an outbreak at a day care, and parents and staff are being notified. Three classes at two Calgary schools are also isolating after children of returning travellers attended while infected with a variant strain. Dr. Hinshaw said there’s no evidence of any spread at these schools.

“The families involved in these situations did not intentionally break any rules and should not be blamed or shamed,” she added.

Alberta identified 28 variant cases through its COVID-19 Border Testing Pilot Program, which has tested almost 45,000 incoming international travellers at a land border crossing and in airports. Dr. Hinshaw said without the pilot program, the province’s official variant case numbers would be lower – but the variants would likely be spreading more widely in the province without being detected.

Alberta has the ability to screen 300 positive COVID-19 samples for variants per day. At current infection rates, this means the province’s labs can screen every sample that is positive for COVID-19 for variants.

Zain Chagla, a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton and an infectious-diseases physician, said the 24-day quarantine period is the strictest in Canada.

He said the extension could backfire, as it could deter people with COVID-19 symptoms from getting tested, for example.

”Could you imagine being quarantined for 24 days? That’s a lot,” he said. “It’s tough.”

The aggressive quarantine period may be designed, in part, to push people who test positive for a variant to stay in an isolation hotel for the 10 days rather than at home, forcing others in the household to stay in quarantine for nearly a month, Dr. Chagla added.

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