New modeling released today by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggests that the highly transmissible variant of Omicron will push hospital admissions to “extremely high levels” in the coming weeks, as that the number of cases will reach levels never seen before in this country.
Although there is much uncertainty about the number of new infections being reported each day due to ongoing COVID-19 testing constraints, PHAC said the current test positivity rate suggests the variant is rampant and that there will be “several weeks of very intense activity expected to come.”
Nationally, the positivity rate is a staggering 28%. That means more than one in four tests for the virus come back positive – nearly five times higher than the rate at any other time during the pandemic.
WATCH: Dr. Theresa Tam discusses expected Omicron push
This exorbitant number may be skewed by testing limitations, now that some provinces and territories are restricting access to testing to groups most vulnerable to COVID-19.
To maintain the health care system and ‘essential functions of society’, PHAC urges Canadians to limit in-person contact, get vaccinated and wear good quality, well-fitting masks to help stop transmission of a variant that tears through communities nationwide.
Although PHAC has said Omicron is likely less severe than past variants – the risk of hospitalization is lower than the Delta variant, for example – the large number of new infections means more people will be likely to suffer serious consequences, including hospitalization and death.
The ‘enormous volume of cases’ – modeling suggests there could be as many as 150,000 new infections a day this month – is driving severe illness trends nationwide, PHAC said . New hospital admissions could reach between 2,000 and 4,000 every day, well above historic highs.
Since December, the number of people with COVID-19 treated in hospitals has more than quadrupled to an average of more than 6,779 per day, while the number in intensive care has doubled to an average of more than 884 per day. day. Meanwhile, 82 deaths are reported every day.
Although the high volume of cases is driving up hospitalization rates in all age groups, the number of hospital and intensive care unit admissions is still highest among adults aged 80 or older.
Infection rates could stabilize in Quebec and Ontario
People over the age of 80 report hospitalization rates eight to ten times higher than younger cohorts. But unlike previous pandemic waves, the Omicron wave also saw a small but noticeable increase in hospitalizations among young children.
There are early indications that the rate of new infections may be stabilizing in Ontario and Quebec. “It’s entirely possible that in the next few days we’ll see a spike in cases,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer.
But the number of new hospital admissions will remain high for the foreseeable future as there is a lag between infection and serious outcomes.
“We could be like other countries – see a big, big jump and then a pretty quick drop. But we all want to be careful about commenting on this before we see more information,” Tam said.
Omicron has taken its toll because it is able to evade previous immunity from past infections and vaccination. PHAC said two doses of an mRNA vaccine are not very effective against symptomatic infections and illnesses; he described the vaccine’s effectiveness against an Omicron infection as “low to very low”.
However, people who have received two doses of a vaccine are less likely to be hospitalized. PHAC data suggests that unvaccinated people are 19 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people.
“These trends clearly show that being vaccinated with two or more doses is highly protective. As booster doses continue to increase, being up to date with COVID-19 vaccines should preserve this protective benefit,” Tam said.
To avoid further strain on hospitals, PHAC is urging vaccine holders to finally get a dose. More than 6.5 million eligible Canadians are not yet fully immunized. Vaccination coverage among people aged 5 to 11 remains stubbornly low, with only 48% of children in this age group having received at least one dose.
Tam said Pfizer’s promising antiviral Paxlovid could be a useful tool in the next phase of this pandemic fight — and future federal modeling on hospitalizations and deaths may need to be updated if and when this self-administered treatment is widely available for high-risk patients. the patients.
Clinical trial results suggest that Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89% compared to placebo in non-hospitalized high-risk adults with COVID-19.
Health Canada is currently reviewing the product, but a post-approval delivery schedule remains uncertain.
“There is a global supply constraint and it may not be widely used for some time. What we are trying to do at PHAC is bring together experts to help provide some considerations on how initial supplies might be prioritized, much like we did with the first batch of vaccines. That work is ongoing,” Tam said.