Unprecedented levels of COVID-19 across Canada also runs hospital admissions and once again threatens many provincial health systems.
Still, experts say it is too early to say how much hospitalizations could grow in the coming days and weeks. With test capacity at its breaking point and data still coming in about Omicron’s seriousness, they say modeling this latest wave will require updating their methodology.
“We fly blind,” said Caroline Colijn, a professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University who has modeled the British Columbia pandemic.
“There is a good chance that when we have a clearer picture of where we are and where we might be going, we may be in the middle of a big situation for the health care system.”
Nearly all provinces are setting new records for COVID-19 cases as Omicron sweeps across Canada
Hospital admissions have always been a lame indicator in the pandemic, with an increase in patient admissions usually coming weeks after the cases begin to increase.
This latest Omicron-powered wave has been no different. While cases began to rise markedly in early December, the number of cases at the hospital began to rise two weeks later.
There are now over 2,700 patients in the hospital with COVID-19, including nearly 500 in intensive care, a level last seen in October last year.
The increase is mainly driven by Ontario and Quebec, where the number of cases has exceeded 10,000 a day. In Quebec alone, admissions have doubled in just one week, with 939 patients receiving care from Thursday.
But the sudden rise in laboratory-confirmed infections – including a staggering 39,700 on Thursday – has created a perfect storm of unpredictability about what happens next.
Because Omicron has proven to be much more transferable, test capacity has been pushed to the extreme, with health officials warning that official case numbers are likely to be underscore. And with home rapid tests becoming more prevalent, not all positive results from these test kits are reported to public health, creating gaps in the data.
Meanwhile, research suggests that Omicron may not lead to as many admissions as the more severe Delta variant. A public health survey in Ontario published Thursday showed that the risk of hospitalization or death was, on average, 54 percent lower in Omicron cases than Delta cases.
The problem, as Colijn points out, is that less chance of hospitalizations may not be good news if cases explode at the current rate.
“Even with a lower hospitalization rate, if you have 20,000, 30,000 cases a day or more, it’s still potential to send a lot of people to the hospital,” she said.
Omicron cases are rising across Canada
Modeling that has been released so far does not bode well for the rest of the country. The research institute, which reports to the Quebec government, said Thursday that their modeling predicts “significant growth in new hospital admissions and the consequent occupancy of regular and intensive care beds over the next three weeks.”
The National Institute of Excellence in Health and Social Services said its models show there could be between 1,600 and 2,100 COVID-19 patients outside intensive care units over the next three weeks. It said there could also be between 300 and 375 ICU patients during that period.
The most horrific scenarios – 2,100 regular COVID-19 patients and 375 intensive care units – would surpass anything recorded during previous waves of the pandemic.
Provinces have also begun to report a higher number of health workers testing positive for COVID-19, which has forced them into isolation and out of hospitals where they are needed.
Omicron is less serious than Delta Delta survey suggests as COVID cases rise across Canada
At least one hospital in Ontario, Queensway Carleton in Ottawa, said Wednesday it would slow down some services after 40 employees tested positive for COVID-19.
Quebec and Ontario have this week shortened the isolation period for these workers from 10 days to seven to prevent staff shortages. Manitoba and British Columbia have said they are considering similar measures, while Alberta announced it would allow unvaccinated health workers back on the job, provided they undergo rigorous testing.
Daniel Coombs, an epidemiological modeling expert at the University of British Columbia, points out that although Omicron is pushing infections into the sky, the Delta variant remains widespread across the country and is still responsible for many of the current admissions.
He said his team and other model builders will look to other countries where testing capacity is not as strained as Denmark and the United Kingdom, to try to get a sense of where Canada may be heading. Wastewater testing will also play a role.
These factors will have to account for the test holes that Coombs said allowed epidemiologists to understand the impact of Delta faster than Omicrons.
“When the Delta wave came in, we still had really good tests,” he said. “So we kind of understood, ‘OK, we just have to recalibrate.’ And now it’s not just a recalibration, we’ll have to find new ways to understand what’s going on.”
Unprecedented COVID-19 case numbers may change protocols
Not all provinces are experiencing increases in hospital admissions. In Saskatchewan, the number of patients has dropped by about 20 percent compared to two weeks ago, while the intensive care unit has flattened out in Alberta and BC
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has pointed to the declining hospital admissions as proof that there is no need for more restrictions, but is focusing instead on boosters.
Still, he reiterated health officials in other provinces, who said this week that hospitalizations will be the new metric that will determine their public health responses as case numbers become less accurate.
Quebec responded Thursday to its increased patient intake by reintroducing a nightly curfew that has not been seen since last winter.
In a statement Thursday, Canada’s top public health official called on Dr. Theresa Tam Canadians to be vaccinated if they have not already done so and that eligible adults receive a third booster dose as soon as they are eligible to help control the spread.
“Keeping the infection rate down remains the key to avoiding renewed increases in serious disease trends over the coming weeks and months, as well as easing the long-term strain on the health system, especially in severely affected areas,” she said.
– With files from the Canadian press
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