Canada’s two largest provinces believe they may be nearing the peak of hospital admissions in the Omicron-driven wave of the pandemic, bringing some hope for relief to the health care system and a chance to start easing restrictions as early as next week.
Quebec’s Prime Minister François Legault quoted the hospital’s forecast when he announced on Thursday that he would lift his province’s curfew and reopen schools next Monday. Ontario officials said they plan to move more slowly to end pandemic security measures.
Co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, Peter Juni, said Thursday that the Omicron wave of rising hospital admissions in his province could plateau as early as Tuesday – meaning that the growth of infections was already slowing.
Cases have been difficult to measure accurately as the province has restricted access to tests. But Dr. June pointed to a drop in test positivity figures from 34.3 percent on January 2 to 23.2 percent on Thursday. And he said cell phone data shows that Ontarians’ “mobility outside the home” has dropped dramatically since December.
Early next week, Dr. June, the rate of increase in new hospital admissions should begin to slow or level off, with the increases in admissions to intensive care continuing for at least another week. But he warned that it is still too early to say for sure that Ontario had seen the worst at Omicron.
“I may be too optimistic,” said Dr. June. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Alberta’s chief physician, Deena Hinshaw, noted that half of all waves of COVID-19 occur when the rise subsides, and caution is still warranted. Further, even though new cases have the plateau, the pressure on hospitals is still rising because COVID-19 admissions are lagging behind infections.
After a hectic week fighting the pandemic, Mr. Legault to the Quebeckers that the worst of this fifth wave may soon be behind them.
His announcement on Thursday will be the first step out of a deep lockdown prompted by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant that has overwhelmed the healthcare system.
The province is expanding its requirement for vaccination passes to large stores as part of its accelerating campaign to encourage holdouts to get their shots. The unvaccinated have placed a disproportionate burden on hospitals, representing only 10 percent of Quebec adults, but about half of the intensive care units, Mr Legault said this week.
From January 24, the vaccination requirement will apply to large checkout stores of more than 1,500 square feet, such as the Canadian Tire and Walmart, but that excludes grocery stores and pharmacies. This will be the first time Quebec has used the vaccine passport for private retail, a dramatic new move unveiled by the health minister last week.
Mr. Legault recently introduced a plan to tax the unvaccinated and exclude them from the provincial liquor and cannabis stores. He also rationed samples and replaced the director of public health.
“The good news is that the measures we took, which were tough, in late December … they paid off,” he said Thursday. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Students will be required to wear masks when they return to the classrooms on January 17th. In anticipation of staff shortages due to violent infection, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said parents may be asked to help monitor classes but not teach them, “as a last resort, exceptionally temporarily.”
Quebec is the only province that has imposed a curfew and this will end in less than three weeks. It required residents to be home between 10pm and 5pm every night. Recent polls show that the measure was less popular than the previous one, in the winter of 2021.
Restaurant-dining rooms, bars, cinemas and other public venues are still closed in the province and virtually all indoor private gatherings are prohibited. Although Mr Legault said he hoped to lift further restrictions in the coming weeks, he called on Quebeckers to support a slow reopening.
“Let us be patient. Let us be careful,” he said, “for after winter comes spring.”
Meanwhile, Ontario officials gave no confirmation that restrictions could be lifted as planned in just under two weeks – though the government said this week that it will continue to reopen schools on January 17.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore told reporters on Thursday that it is still too early to say for sure that the province will lift its public health restrictions on January 26, the end date mentioned when Prime Minister Doug Ford announced them on January 3.
Since then, restaurants and large public venues have been closed, retailers have capacity constraints, and indoor gatherings are limited to five people. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce on Thursday urged the government to let suffering companies know if they could expect a return to normal and what benchmarks the province should hit.
Dr. Moore said the county is keeping an eye on the number of admissions and intensive care units, and whether staff shortages are hampering operations, and that restrictions should be lifted at gradual two-week intervals. He said he expected the numbers would give a better picture next week.
“We do not have much clarity yet as the number of people in the health care system continues to increase day by day,” said Dr. Moore. “I’m looking for a plateau and a peak, and then we will slowly and carefully remove public health measures so that we do not have a recovery in cases that come into our hospitals.”
Ontario on Thursday reported 3,649 people in the hospital with COVID-19, a pandemic record and an increase of more than 1,300 from a week ago. Its intensive care units had 500 COVID-19 patients. Health officials say they do not expect the province’s two million students to return to classrooms on Monday to create a huge wave of new cases.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said his province went through the “hockey stick” phase with growth in new infections about four weeks ago.
“I hope we are in the last half of the rise,” he told reporters. “But … the numbers are just huge.”
The western province counted 62,733 laboratory-confirmed active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. This, noted Mr. Kenney, marked a new highlight for the province, and given the lack of official testing capacity in Alberta, it does not catch all new infections.
Alberta hospitals had 786 patients with COVID-19, which exceeded the highs of the first and third waves, but fewer than the peaks of the second and fourth waves.
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