The provincial government has a gift for Albertans this holiday season.

With COVID-19 case numbers low in the province, some changes have been made to gathering restrictions. The maximum indoor gathering limit remains at 10 adults, however, the government said this can now involve more than two households. Albertans under 18 years of age do not count toward the limit.

This is in effect immediately and will affect everyone, regardless of vaccination status.

Outdoor social gathering capacity remains at 20 people. Physical distancing between households is required and masks are still mandatory in indoor public places.

Alberta has some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions in the country.

Rapid testing expansion

In a meeting on Tuesday (Dec.14), the premiers and prime minister discussed the dangers of the Omicron variant. It has been found in 77 countries, three weeks after first being discovered. Early research indicates it may be less deadly than the delta variant but is more transmissible, posing a greater risk to the health care system.

"We have to use every possible tool at our disposal to limit the spread," said Premier Jason Kenney.

Starting on Friday (Dec.17), the province is expanding rapid testing in Alberta. The province will make 500,000 rapid test kits available at select Alberta Health Services (AHS) sites and select pharmacies, for Albertans to use at home. These will also be made available for any elementary school under alert status. 

To date, 5.9-million rapid tests have been distributed in Alberta.

These tests are intended for at-home personal use for regular screening in those who are asymptomatic. Albertans who screen positive on a rapid test or who have COVID-19 symptoms should book a confirmatory PCR test through AHS and must isolate for 10 days or until they receive a negative PCR test result.

Vaccine rollout

Effective immediately, Albertans aged 50 and older as well as all healthcare workers who had their second dose at least six months ago, can book a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This will make up to 700,000 more Albertans eligible to book boosters.

“Vaccines remain the most effective tool we have against COVID-19. It is especially important to get the booster dose when eligible with emerging information about third doses being more effective against the Omicron variant. Vaccines give good protection against severe disease and hospitalization but their effectiveness can decrease over time, especially with this new variant. I encourage eligible Albertans to take advantage of the increased protection that third doses offer, even if they have had a previous COVID-19 infection,” added chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

AHS is also planning to restore intensive care unit surge capacity if Omicron begins to put pressure on the healthcare system. Policies for healthcare worker exposure, infection prevention and control, and visitors to acute/continuing care sites are under review.