The lead researcher of Newfoundland and Labrador’s predictive analytics team says despite the unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, hospitalizations have so far fallen short of their predictions.
That’s the good news.
But Dr. Proton Rahman said Wednesday, Jan. 12, the main reason hospitalizations remain low is that the province has a high vaccination rate, including a robust uptake for boosters, and pandemic health measures are still in place.
“If you were to release public health measures too quickly, we’ll see a rise in cases again,” Rahman said during a provincial COVID-19 briefing in St. John’s Wednesday.
Rahman echoed observations made previously by Health Minister Dr. John Haggie that hospitalizations should be seen as the key metric in gauging the impact of the latest COVID-19 wave, which is dominated by the significantly more transmissible Omicron variant.
The variant has swept the country like no other since the beginning of the pandemic, but Newfoundland and Labrador has so far escaped the record-high hospitalization rates experienced by some other provinces.
That’s even with the province being more or less on par in terms of cases per capita.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald also heralded the public's vaccine uptake as a major factor in the province’s success in keeping serious illness at a minimum.
“With almost 93 per cent of those 12 and over fully vaccinated, it’s just incredible how the people of our province stepped up to make Newfoundland and Labrador the most highly vaccinated in Canada, and perhaps all of North America,” she said.
Newfoundland and Labrador also leads the country in terms of vaccinations for children age 5-12, with more than 70 per cent having received first doses.
Case counts have varied over the past week, but Rahman demonstrated how data shows an exponential jump that started just before Christmas but levelled off around New Year’s Day.
That data includes adjusted numbers from delayed test results that only started coming back into the province this week from tests that were sent outside the province for processing.
“We can expect to see fluctuations up or down from day to day, as we are seeing this week with backlogged case reports coming in,” Fitzgerald added. “So, I caution those watching the results closely not to read too much into a single daily count.”
Newfoundland and Labrador also has one of the highest testing rates per capita and lowest positivity rates — positive results per total tests conducted — among the provinces.
Even though Public Health changed the criteria in early January to exclude some symptomatic residents, Rahman pointed out that other provinces have also had to trim their testing criteria to keep up with the demand.
Hospitalizations have crept up this week. There are now seven people in hospital, three of them in intensive care.
Rahman said although the predictive analytics team's projections predicted the numbers to be higher by now, the next week or so will be crucial because the steady stream of new infections has driven the active case count in the province to 6,443.
Haggie says the cancellation of elective surgeries by regional health authorities was necessary in case more beds are needed for COVID-19 patients. There are currently about 300 empty ones across the province, he said.
Despite the pause in non-essential procedures, however, Haggie and Premier Andrew Furey admitted the strain is being felt by remaining health-care staff as an increasing number of co-workers are forced to isolate.
Meanwhile, Fitzgerald said the Public Health approach to the coronavirus will have to change with respect to the Omicron variant.
“In the last wave we obliterated the curve through the rapid detection and containment of cases. This virus simply moves too fast for that strategy,” she said. “Our goal now is to keep flattening the curve, and to keep those most vulnerable protected.”
That will be done through a combination of continued vaccinations and some level of health measures and precautions.
Fitzgerald said she will review the current Alert Level 4 status on Monday, Jan. 17.
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram