'It is now that we have to act': Alberta changes testing as variants become dominant strain

They spread faster, can hit harder and now COVID-19 variants are the dominant strains of new cases in Alberta.

Three mutated variants, originating in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa, are game-changers in the fight against the virus which will likely surge cases higher than Alberta has seen yet.

“It is now that we have to act. If we wait to act until our ICUs are overflowing, it will be far too late,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health during her daily update Thursday.

It's also changed Alberta’s testing.

“Testing all close contacts twice we have a better chance at quickly identifying new cases and stopping their spread,” said Hinshaw.

Albertans who come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for any strain of COVID-19 will now be offered two tests: the first as soon as they are notified, the second 10 days later.

Variants make up nearly 45 per cent of Alberta’s active cases, with the vast majority of those the U.K. variant.

Younger people are contracting it.

“I'm not really sure how. I don't really know where but, yeah, I was taking all of the precautions,” said 21-year-old Tyler Makepeace, who was thankful to have mild symptoms.

But more young people are having serious outcomes.

“We've been hearing from doctors all across the country that they've been seeing in their ICUs younger patients,” said Dr. Ann Collins, president of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA).

Alberta leads the country in variant cases per capita and that has shot up within the past week.

Even with the province’s latest restrictions, the spike is expected to exceed the surge seen over Christmas.

“Even with restrictions of this strength, it won’t be enough,” said medical researcher Gosia Gasperowicz, who has been using global data to make projections throughout the pandemic.

“Even if we had the restrictions of last spring it would barely be enough to bring down the curve because of these variants.”

B.C. is struggling too, including the worst outbreak in the National Hockey League. The Vancouver Canucks confirmed a COVID-19 variant is the source of an outbreak affecting 21 players and four staff members.

The team believes it can be traced back to a single person.

The Calgary Flames head coach is concerned.

“These are young guys with young families and that to me is the biggest concern, that we are not getting the vaccines necessary as a society to curb this,” said Darryl Sutter.

The CMA is also calling for an accelerated vaccine rollout and strict lockdowns.

”We have to stop half measures,” said Dr. Collins.

CMA also wants more protection for people on the front lines, such as workers in grocery stores and public transit. It is urging governments and employers to step-up to ensure paid sick leave, proper PPE and accelerated vaccinations for these high-risk jobs.

Along with testing, Alberta has slightly changed its isolation requirements, specifically for anyone who has been exposed to the U.K. variant.

Those people will now only have to quarantine for 14 days after exposure. Anyone in close contact with someone who had the Brazil or South African variant will still need to isolate for 24 days, which includes the 10 days the original person is infected and the 14 days of incubation.

People who can't completely isolate, with their own bedroom and bathroom, are urged to contact the province or 211 to get set up with a free stay in an isolation hotel.