Flames' COVID-19 outbreak a warning to public: Expert – Calgary Sun

Brad Treliving was asked earlier this week if he believed the Calgary Flames’ COVID-19 outbreak, which was confirmed to have the presence of the Omicron variant on Thursday, reminded him of March 2020 all over again.
“I don’t think anything is going to feel like that,” the Flames general manager said, referring to the shock of the beginning of the pandemic nearly two years ago.
But on a larger scale — locally, provincially, across Canada, globally, and, of course, in the National Hockey League — his team’s current situation has become a microcosm of what could be in store with the new strain of the rapidly spreading virus.
The Flames have confirmed 30 positive cases of COVID-19 since Saturday, 18 of which are affecting players. The team received news the Omicron variant was present among some results on Thursday, contributing to the province’s 119 new cases — a figure that nearly doubled from the 60 reported on Wednesday. In the coming days, it is likely they’ll contribute more Omicron cases after lab results continue to arrive.
It’s the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the NHL and, given the speed of the transmission of the newest strain of the virus, it’s a prime example and future predictor of events playing out in real time.
And it should be a warning to the public.
“Many more people are going to get infected in this way,” said Ilan Schwartz, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alberta and an infectious disease physician in Edmonton. “But that sheer volume is likely going to offset some of the benefits of having a more protected populous. From a health care perspective, particularly the fact we’re already starting from behind the 8-ball in that our ICUs are already over capacity. They’re far less full than they were at the peak of the Delta wave, but it’s not like they came back around to a normal starting point.
“So, there is concern. There is concern that this virus is not only going to be transmitted through players, but between spectators.”
The Flames and the NHL announced Wednesday that their return to play would be delayed through Dec. 18 — Saturday’s home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They’re set to play two home games before the Christmas break: Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks and Thursday against the Seattle Kraken. But that is a moving target.
There are questions looming around when the Flames will return to the ice, period, as provincial guidelines indicate that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is legally required to quarantine for 10 days.
From Schwartz’s point of view, it feels like a further suspension of play, at least in front of fans, may be the next logical step.
“We’ve seen that when individuals go to games, they don’t wear masks and they’re in very close proximity to each other,” Schwartz said. “This is really a ripe opportunity for this particular variant which is so efficiently transmitted … we’re losing the protection from the restriction exemption program that helped get us through the Delta wave.”
With the surge in positive tests around the league and region, the Montreal Canadiens closed Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers to fans shortly before puck drop after a request from Quebec public health officials. The Canadiens did say they received reassurances that they would return to a “partial capacity scenario” and host fans in January.
The Ontario government is implementing a 50 per cent capacity limit for sporting events starting Saturday.
As of Thursday, there were no plans in Alberta to limit attendance for NHL games in Edmonton or Calgary or the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, which is scheduled for Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Red Deer.
“It’s a matter of time before all the dominoes fall, and I think this NHL outbreak is the first domino,” Schwartz said. “It’s only a matter of time before we’re going to see the same thing happening in every other major sport. The province of Alberta is saying that they don’t think it’s needed to shut down attendance at games because we haven’t seen transmission at these events. But the reality is, we’re not looking for it … we’re not routinely screening people who are going to hockey games and if people are becoming infected, we don’t have a very robust or, really, any contact tracing system in this province anymore.
“They’re not gathering the data to establish whether it is safe or not.”
Schwartz said in-game transmission was likely how the virus spread from the Flames to the Boston Bruins, who were in Calgary for a game on Dec. 11 and had players test positive in the following days. The spread in and around the Flames’ dressing room is likely due to their close proximity with each other in meetings, practices, transportation between games, among other factors, which was the case long before the presence of the newest strain of virus.
Since the start of the NHL’s return to play, there have been COVID-19 protocols but effective immediately, there are more stringent regulations being implemented, at least through Jan. 7, 2022.
Yet even with the existing measures and consistent testing — at the time, the NHL was testing every three days — Schwartz said outbreaks can occur.
Omicron is proving that.
“These players are not in a bubble, they’re not isolated from their communities,” he said. “All it takes is one individual to become infected and by virtue of the close contact that the players have with one another and close physical contact they have with opposing teams results in this being a circumstance in which this virus can flex and demonstrate how quickly it can spread.”
And it’s only a matter of time before leagues are forced to make some difficult decisions.
“The players obviously want to continue playing and I think there are ways of beefing up the protocol and redoubling on some of the aspects of the protocol that may have become lax over time, especially in the wake of a proven outbreak,” Schwartz said. “I’m more confident that players can revert into a bubble and with really stringent daily rapid testing, etc. But I’m less confident that we are going to be able to prevent spread in arenas between spectators.”
And, eventually, it will be the unvaccinated who are hit the hardest.
“The real concern is what we’re not seeing among those unvaccinated individuals,” Schwartz said. “We’re going to be seeing some bad outcomes.”
Early indicators suggest Omicron is a milder form of COVID-19, but research is limited and, often, incomplete. Yet it spreads twice as fast as the Delta variant.
According to a Flames spokesperson Thursday, all infected members of the organization, who are all (at the very least) double vaccinated, continue to be asymptomatic and are doing well. That is good news.
But how the outbreak was able to occur rapidly is an example of how efficient this virus is, and how it is able to quickly spread among the vaccinated unknowingly.
That, Schwartz said, is the trade-off.
“There is a concern that individuals could be asymptomatic and might write it off as a seasonal cold,” he said. “That’s great that that individual did not get sick. But, at the same time, they’re likely to be engaging in the usual activities that are going to bring them into contact with other individuals at the time when they’re most infectious.”
Schwartz is hopeful that Albertans will heed public health warnings, particularly before the Christmas season, after seeing how efficiently the virus has been able to spread within the Flames organization.
But it’s also why the public and governments should be wary of the Flames’ current scenario.
“For scientists and the people who are watching this, the writing is on the wall,” Schwartz said. “Unfortunately, we just have to wait for decision-makers to come around and that requires a lot of unneeded suffering and deaths.
“Hopefully they’ll come around sooner rather than later, but I think it is inevitable.”
kanderson@postmedia.com
www.twitter.com/KDotAnderson
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