More than 23,000 test samples collected in the months before Alberta reported its first COVID-19 illness uncovered only one “retrospective” case of the illness, the province’s top doctor said Thursday.
Those tests, which were looking for other respiratory illnesses such as influenza, were used earlier this summer by Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Laboratories for a retrospective study that found only a single case, which was detected in a sample taken on Feb. 24.
The positive test was an individual who had returned from travel in the United States and was originally tested for influenza.
That was less than two weeks before the province reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 5.
“The fact that we found only a single retrospective case and that it was detected not long before March 5 is positive news,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said Thursday at a news conference.
With any virus, including H1N1 influenza, only a fraction of the cases are detected by the health system, Hinshaw said — often because people don’t seek treatment or experience symptoms so mild they are not aware they have the virus.
The samples used in the retrospective study were originally collected between Dec. 1, 2019, and March 7, 2020.
“In my opinion, having just that single case really validates our approach,” Hinshaw said.
5 new deaths
The province reported reported five more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday and 113 new cases of the illness.
Among the deaths was a man in his 20s from the Edmonton zone, only the second person that young to have died since the pandemic began six months ago.
The other most recent deaths were a man in his 70s and a woman in her 50s, both from the North zone, and a woman in her 70s and a man in his 80s, both from the Calgary zone. The Calgary man’s death was linked to an outbreak at All Colony Seniors Lodge.
As of Thursday, the province had 1,494 active cases, down 91 cases from the day before.
Those cases include 24 reported at 21 schools across the province, Hinshaw said. There has been no evidence that the illness was transmitted inside any of those schools.
Three Alberta schools — Henry Wise Wood High School in Calgary. St. Wilfrid Elementary in Calgary and Chinook School in Lethbridge — have reported outbreaks.
According to AHS guidelines, an outbreak is defined as two or more confirmed cases at the same school within 14 days. Each school with an outbreak has reported two cases of the illness.
Hinshaw said she has heard Albertans’ concerns about the length of time it currently takes to get test results back.
“We are working hard to streamline every facet of the testing and notification process to reduce wait times across the province,” she said.
Test results via text message
Hinshaw said Thursday that Albertans can now get their results, either positive or negative, by text messages or through an auto-dialler phone system.
Those who test positive will still be contacted by phone by an Alberta Health Services for followup and case management, she said.
The new systems will give people the ability to be notified as soon as the lab result is available.
“This is another step forward and will help us get test results to Albertans quicker, which will be vital to eliminating the spread of COVID-19 in the coming weeks and months.”
The five most recent deaths bring the total in the province to 253, including 34 residents from the Good Samaritan Care Centre in Edmonton.
Across the province, 43 people were being treated in hospitals for the illness Thursday, including seven in ICU beds.
Alberta’s caseload continues to increase, with cases now cropping up in Alberta classrooms.
The province has launched an online map intended to help parents better track future outbreaks.