Experts concerned about hospital capacity as Omicron spread continues

·3 min read

OTTAWA — A rise in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant of the virus has renewed concerns among experts about the capacity of Canada's hospitals and health-care workers to handle another wave of the pandemic.

Paul-Emile Cloutier, president of HealthCareCAN, said the latest wave could make the existing health-care worker shortage worse. HealthCareCAN represents research hospitals and regional health authorities.

"If they have to isolate because they have the virus, then that reduces the amount of staff available," Cloutier said in an interview Sunday.

"The health professionals are stepping up one more time, as they do normally, and try to provide the care that patients need. But they do it when they're tired. They're doing it when they're exhausted. They're doing it when they're at the end of their rope."

The highly infectious Omicron variant of the virus has been driving a surge in COVID-19 cases across much of Canada in recent weeks.

Canada's Olympic mixed doubles curling trials were cancelled Sunday because of a rise in athletes testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. Curling Canada said the "risks associated with travelling" also contributed to the cancellation.

Cloutier said the number of cases over the next few days will depend on whether people followed public health orders, monitored symptoms and stayed home.

"I think everybody agrees that the numbers will go higher," he said.

Only a few health authorities released the number of COVID-19 infections Boxing Day. Ontario reported 9,826 new COVID-19 cases, which was a decline after a record-breaking 10,412 infections on Christmas Day -- but still a marked increase over the 4,177 reported a week earlier.

Quebec reported about 8,000 cases and three more deaths as new and tighter COVID-19 restrictions took effect Sunday. The province capped private gatherings at six people or two family bubbles.

Health officials in Nova Scotia reported more than 1,100 new COVID-19 cases over the past two days.

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease expert with the University Health Network in Toronto, said the numbers are likely to be higher than reported.

“It’s not possible to imagine that that's accurate,” he said.

Several provinces have asked people to get tested only if they have symptoms as hospitals and centres have reached their testing limits.

British Columbia's health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, had earlier said there have been long lines and delays at testing sites across the province.

She asked people not to get tested to meet up with family and friends over the holidays, adding those who feel unwell need to adjust plans and self-isolate if they develop symptoms.

Experts have said this means there are likely more cases than reported.

Sharkawy agreed.

While the variant has so far been described as mild, he noted it could become more difficult for hospitals to maintain operations if health workers are infected and need to isolate.

Robust contact tracing and a greater availability of rapid tests is needed to stem the growing case count, Sharkawy said.

"It's impossible for these numbers to slow down for at least the next three to four weeks, unless very drastic measures are taken."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 26, 2021.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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