Omicron could soon peak and hospitalizations may surge, Tam says
The Omicron variant has “eclipsed” all previous COVID-19 waves in Canada and new modelling forecasts a “large surge” and potential peak in new cases this month, before declining in February.
“While Canada could see a sharp peak and decline in cases in the coming weeks given disease activity far exceeds previous peaks, even the downside of this curve could be considerable,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam on Friday.
The modelling data provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada also shows Canada is on track to see approximately between 100,000 and 250,000 daily infections.
“The true number of daily cases, driven by extremely high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, could still vastly exceed anything we have experienced to date during this pandemic,” Tam said. “We are hopeful that cases will soon peak.”
As a result of the record-breaking number of infections, new daily hospital admissions are also forecast to break records too, far exceeding past peaks.
However, federal officials are cautioning that they still do not have the full picture of Omicron’s rate of hospitalization compared to past strains of COVID-19.
“Given the lower severity profile of Omicron, hospitalizations haven’t increased at the same explosive rate as cases,” Tam said. “Nevertheless, that sudden acceleration and enormous volume of cases associated with an Omicron surge puts an intense strain on hospitals over several weeks, and adds to longer-lasting impacts such as extended backlogs and a strained workforce.”
She noted that many jurisdictions are trying to discern whether their patients are hospitalized because of COVID-19, or if they were admitted for another reason but also have COVID-19 and. While this will be helpful in assessing the impact of Omicron, overall the outcome is the same: capacity is being stretched, she said.
“The other parameters that we are trying to discern from the province is the length of stay, and then also the clinical progression inside the hospitals. So far, what we've been hearing is that the length of stay seems to be shorter for the Omicron variant cases that we're seeing,” Tam said.
On average, in the last seven days, 6,779 patients were in hospital with COVID-19, 883 were in the ICU, and there have been 82 deaths.
The highest incidence of reported cases is among adults between the ages of 20 and 39, with hospitalizations increasing at the highest rates among seniors over the age of 80.
“We're being told, at least in my province, that if you have a significant combination of respiratory tract symptoms, you should assume you've got Omicron… Where we have to be very careful is to identify patients that get symptoms and might be at higher risk of ending up in hospital, because we have to get to them quickly, follow them, and if they need in-person care, we've got to care for them. And that's where the health-care system capacity question comes in,” said Dr. Allan Grill, the chief of family medicine at the Markham-Stouffville Hospital on CTV News Channel.
The data indicates that Canada could hit more than 3.5 million cumulative cases and up to 32,600 cumulative deaths by the last week of January, though those figures may be underestimating the true picture, due to reduced access to testing and reporting of COVID-19 infections.
Tam is cautioning that Canadians need to do all they can to limit their contacts, continue physical distancing, wear well-fitting and high-quality masks when in public, in an effort to curb the further rapid transmission of Omicron.
As of the last federal modelling update in December, the Delta variant was the dominant strain, however in the weeks following, Omicron has overtaken as the predominant variant in this country, and has exceeded past projections.
The highly transmissible variant has resulted in Canada seeing more active cases than at any other point in the last two years of this pandemic, and has led to a new wave of restrictions out of concern for overwhelming hospital capacity.
Many regions have reverted to virtual schooling for students and have shuttered or greatly reduced capacity at businesses like gyms, theatres, and restaurants as was the case in earlier waves of the pandemic.
Even still, under the current level of public health measures and societal restrictions, the health-care system is in for a challenging winter, Tam said.
“With several weeks of very intense activity expected to come, we need to do our best now to limit the size of the Omicron surge in order to maintain the health system and critical functions of society,” she said.
While federal officials have sought to encourage Canadians public frustrated, tired and angered by the COVID-19 crisis, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has warned they will likely have to “hunker down” this winter before seeing “a better spring.”
As Canada’s top public health official, Tam is continuing to implore Canadians to get vaccinated as their best line of defence against COVID-19.
She said Friday that more than 6.5 million Canadians still are not vaccinated, and that unvaccinated people are still “significantly” more likely to be hospitalized than fully-vaccinated people.