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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

A COVID-19 outbreak at a seniors’ residence in Edmonton that involves a more contagious variant of the virus has grown to 36 infections as the province speeds up its vaccine program for older Albertans.

The outbreak at Churchill Manor, a private seniors’ residence in the southeastern part of the city, began last Friday when the first case was detected. Atria Retirement Canada, which operates the facility, said 32 residents and four staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday. Alberta Health said 19 have also tested positive for a more contagious variant.

Residents at Churchill Manor received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccines on Monday, after the outbreak had begun and residents were exposed. Privately operated supportive living facilities such as Churchill Manor were included in the second phase of the province’s vaccine rollout, receiving their shots in the same period as people in the broader community who are 75 and older.

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

COVID-19 news: Updates and essential resources about the pandemic

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Canada’s COVID-19 quarantine hotels are now mandatory for international air travellers. Here’s what you need to know

Premier Jason Kenney used the outbreak to criticize the federal government for the delayed rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, suggesting people at Churchill Manor would have been vaccinated earlier if only Ottawa had a better handle on the situation.

Atria said it had been slowly easing restrictions on residents beginning on Feb. 12, including offering meals in the dining room with physical distancing. People at the facility were still required to wear masks and undergo regular screening.

As soon as the first case of COVID-19 was detected, the company said, Churchill Manor asked residents to stay in their rooms and prohibited group gatherings.

“We are confident we are doing everything we can to protect our residents and staff,” a statement from the company said. “Alberta Health Services has reviewed our safety measures and has said they are satisfied with our protocols.”

Alberta Health Services staff are on-site this week conducting additional tests.

Atria said four of the residents who were infected are recovering off-site. Neither the company nor Alberta Health would say if any of them are in hospital.

The province announced in January that it had given first vaccine doses to all long-term care residents and staff, which included people in nursing care and publicly funded supportive living. That did not include private facilities, which were instead included in the second phase that began in late February. Private group-living facilities such as seniors’ lodges with residents older than 75 started on Feb. 19, a few days before vaccinations rolled out to everyone in the province in that age group regardless of where they live.

Staff in the fully private facilities will be able to get vaccinated in the next phase, which begins on March 15.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said people in long-term care sites or publicly funded supportive living facilities have a greater risk because of their age and underlying health conditions. She said the province had to make decisions based on risk to manage a limited supply of vaccines.

“When we looked at our rollout of vaccination to different groups, we prioritized the greatest impact with respect to severe illness and death,” she told a media briefing on Thursday.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said there has been confusion because of the complex nature of the continuing care system, which involves a mix of public and private facilities and funding, with varying levels of care.

Earlier in the day, Premier Kenney pointed to the Churchill Manor outbreak during a news conference with other premiers as he repeated his criticism of delays with the federal vaccine program.

“They should have been vaccinated weeks ago, like they were in similar settings in the United States, Israel, the U.K. and many, many, many other countries,” he said.

A day earlier, Alberta joined other provinces in extending the time between first and second doses of the vaccines to four months, which is now recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

Mr. Shandro announced Thursday that every adult in the province will be able to get their first shot by the end of June, with the next phase of vaccinations for people 65 and older and Indigenous peoples aged 50 and up starting on March 15.

The AstraZeneca vaccine will be available later this month to people who are 50 to 64. They will have a choice to either get the AstraZeneca vaccine or wait until their turn in the overall priority list for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

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