New modeling released today by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggests the highly transmissible Omicron variant will drive hospital admissions to “extremely high levels” in the coming weeks as the number of cases has reached levels unprecedented in this country.
While there is great uncertainty about how many new infections are reported each day due to ongoing COVID-19 testing restrictions, PHAC said the current test positivity rate suggests the variant is widespread and that “several weeks of very intense activity are expected.”
Nationwide, the positivity rate is a staggering 28 percent. That means more than one in four tests for the virus is positive – almost five times higher than at any other time during the pandemic.
WATCH: Dr. Theresa Tam on current COVID modelling
That sky-high number may be skewed by testing restrictions, as it is now the case in some provinces and territories Restriction of Trial Access for groups most vulnerable to COVID-19.
To keep the health system and “critical functions of society alive,” PHAC is urging Canadians to limit social contact, get booster shots and wear high-quality, close-fitting face masks to stop the transmission of a tearing variant through communities nationwide.
While PHAC said Omicron is likely less serious than previous variants — the risk of hospitalization is lower than the Delta variant, for example — the sheer number of new infections means more people will be vulnerable to serious consequences, including hospitalization and death.
The “huge volume of cases” — modeling suggests there could be as many as 150,000 new infections per day sometime this month — is driving an increase in severe disease trends nationwide, PHAC said. New hospital admissions could reach between 2,000 and 4,000 each day, well above historic highs.
Since December, the number of people being treated in hospitals for COVID-19 has more than quadrupled to an average of over 6,779 daily, while the number in critical care has doubled to an average of over 884 daily. 82 deaths are now reported every day.
While the high caseload is leading to an increase in hospital admissions across all age groups, the number of hospital admissions and ICU admissions remains highest among adults aged 80 and over.
In Quebec, Ontario, infection rates could stabilize
People over 80 report hospitalization rates eight to 10 times higher than younger cohorts. But unlike previous pandemic waves, the Omicron wave has also seen a small but notable increase in hospital admissions among young children.
There are early signs that the rate of new infections in Ontario and Quebec may be stabilizing. “It is quite possible that we will see a peak in cases over the next few days,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada.
But the number of new hospital admissions will remain high for the foreseeable future because of the time lag between infection and serious consequences.
“We could be like other countries – see a big, big rise and then fall off pretty quickly. But we all just want to be careful about speaking this out before we see any more information,” Tam said.
Omicron has wreaked havoc because of its ability to bypass previous immunity from previous infections and vaccinations. PHAC said two doses of an mRNA vaccine are not very effective against infection and symptomatic disease; It described the vaccine’s effectiveness against Omicron infection as “low to very low”.
However, people with two doses of a vaccine are less likely to be hospitalized. PHAC data suggest unvaccinated people are 19 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people.
“These trends clearly show that vaccination with two or more doses offers a high level of protection. As booster doses continue to increase, timeliness with COVID-19 vaccines is expected to preserve this protective benefit,” Tam said.
To prevent further strain on hospitals, PHAC is urging vaccine refusers to finally get a dose. More than 6.5 million eligible Canadians are yet to be fully vaccinated. Immunization coverage among people ages 5 to 11 remains stubbornly low, with only 48 percent of children in this age group having received at least one vaccine.
said Tam Paxlovid, Pfizer’s promising antiviral, may be a useful tool in the next phase of this pandemic fight — and future federal hospitalization and death models may need to be updated when this self-administered treatment becomes widely available for high-risk patients.
Clinical trial results suggest Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by an impressive 89 percent compared to placebo in high-risk, non-hospitalized adults with COVID-19.
Health Canada is now reviewing the product, but a post-approval delivery schedule remains uncertain.
“There is a global supply constraint and it may not be widely available for a while. What we’re trying to do at PHAC is to bring experts together to have some thinking about how first aid might be prioritized, much like we did with the first batch of vaccines. That work is ongoing,” Tam said.