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The three more contagious variants of COVID-19 in Alberta have become the dominant strains and those who test positive can assume they are infected with the one first reported in the United Kingdom, the province’s top doctor says.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, reported Thursday 717 new cases of the variants of concern, which also make up about 45 per cent of active cases in Alberta.

Screening has confirmed a total of 8,229 cases linked to the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the U.K.

“We have now reached the point that if you test positive, you should assume you have the U.K. variant,” Hinshaw said.

Another 26 infections have been linked to the variant first detected in South Africa, and 23 cases have been linked to the one first found in Brazil.

Hinshaw said the province will test close contacts of all confirmed cases twice, regardless of the strain.

“If you are a close contact, you will be offered testing as soon as you are notified and, if you test negative, offered testing again 10 days after your last exposure,” Hinshaw said.

“By testing all close contacts twice, we have a better chance of quickly identifying new cases and stopping their spread.”

Specialized contact tracers will also be focusing on the South Africa and Brazil variants, and will treat the U.K. variant and regular COVID-19 strain the same, she said.

Also Thursday, the province reported 1,429 new infections, the highest daily total seen this year. There were 340 people in hospital with the illness, including 83 in intensive care.

Three more COVID-19 deaths were reported, bringing that total in Alberta to 2,005 since the pandemic started last year.

Hinshaw said the good news is that the three COVID-19 vaccines available in Alberta — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca — are effective in stopping the variant most common in the province.

But she added that vaccines seem to have lower effectiveness against infection with the South Africa variant, although they still can prevent severe illness.

For the Brazil variant, the evidence is mixed and it isn’t clear if vaccines will be effective, she said.

“Our knowledge and understanding is rapidly evolving and we’ll know a lot more in the time to come,” Hinshaw said.

“That’s one reason we are keeping measures in place right now, even for people who have gotten the vaccine.”

Earlier this week, the province announced stricter public-health measures to curb infections and ease pressure on the health system.

Restaurants must close to in-person dining starting Friday and retail stores were forced to lower their capacity from 25 per cent to 15 per cent on Wednesday.

Low-intensity group fitness activities are once again not allowed. Indoor social gatherings remain banned and outdoor get-togethers can have no more than 10 people.

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