ICU pressures mount as COVID fells younger people; U.S. could help with vaccines

·4 min read

TORONTO — COVID-19 placed mounting pressure on hospitals, struck a growing number of younger people and dealt a blow to the sporting world, although an American offer of vaccines provided some relief Wednesday.

Several provinces reported high numbers of severely ill patients and concern grew over the spread of highly contagious variants of the virus.

In one hopeful sign, however, U.S. President Joe Biden indicated America plans to send surplus COVID-19 vaccines to Canada, likely the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot.

"We're looking at what is going to be done with some of the vaccines that we are not using … and we hope to be able to be of some help and value to countries around the world," said Biden, who spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Earlier Wednesday, Canada's top public health officer cited the need to review new data for the last-minute cancellation of a news conference on AstraZeneca vaccine guidelines a day earlier. The National Advisory Commission on Immunization, which currently recommends the shot for those 55 and older, has been looking at the vaccine amid concerns about rare blood-clotting complications, particularly among younger recipients

British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have been giving AstraZeneca to people as young as 40 and in Quebec as young as 45.

Meanwhile, a recent surge in hospital and ICU admissions has been particularly acute in Ontario, where experts have warned the system was fast reaching a breaking point. One ICU doctor in Toronto reported the rate of fatalities among younger Canadians had increased dramatically in recent months.

According to Dr. Michael Warner, between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28, one patient under 50 years old in intensive care died of coronavirus disease every five days. In the first 48 days of the third wave, which began March 1, the rate had jumped to one in just 1.78 days.

"Younger daycare workers, ride-share drivers, factory workers — and their families — are dying," Warner, with Michael Garron Hospital, tweeted.

The Ontario government, which has faced withering criticism over its refusal to legislate paid sick leave for essential workers in light of large workplace outbreaks, said it would present such a program within days.

The province said on Wednesday that 2,335 people were in hospital with the novel coronavirus, with 790 people in intensive care and 566 needing mechanical help to breathe. In all, it reported another 4,212 new cases and 32 more deaths.

Ontario, among others, has urged Ottawa to ban travel from India, which has seen a massive surge of COVID-19, including almost 300,000 new cases and another 2,000 deaths reported on Wednesday.

Federal data show the arrival of 35 flights from India with at least one case of COVID-19 in the last two weeks, with more than one infected person aboard many of the flights.

In Ottawa, Dr. Theresa Tam, the country's chief public health officer, said the federal government was reviewing travel from India. While Canada prefers measures that are not country specific, Tam said India could be a special case due to a "variant of interest" there.

In all, 15,762 Canadian citizens or permanent residents arrived by air April 4-11, another 1,772 were other foreigners, including 1,422 Americans, according to Canada Border Services Agency.

Tam also noted uncertainty about the virulence of new variants but said one of them, P1, appeared to be hitting younger people. Health authorities also said it would be impossible to stop variants entering the country.

Quebec, which has now confirmed its first case of the B. 1.617 "double variant" that has fuelled India's surge, reported on Wednesday a jump of 1,217 cases, six more deaths, and another 22 patients admitted to hospital. Health officials said another person was in ICU for a total of 178 needing intensive care.

In Alberta, beef-packing company Cargill said it had been forced to hold off on a vaccination clinic for thousands of workers at its plant in High River due to a delay in receiving the Moderna vaccine. Almost half the 2,200 workers at the facility have contracted COVID-19, two fatally.

Manitoba said it was expanding its vaccine program to include all front-line police officers and firefighters, as well as teachers and other at-risk workers. People in high-risk areas would also soon be eligible for a shot.

Sports also felt the COVID-19 sting. The pandemic prompted the cancellation of the women's World Hockey Championship in Nova Scotia for a second time.

The third wave of COVID-19 is also playing havoc with the Olympic preparations of Canada's top track and field athletes who can't travel to British Columbia to compete in a key event due to the COVID-19 situation in the province.

The pandemic has also caused widespread disruption in courtrooms. Ontario's Superior Court of Justice ordered deferment of all but the most urgent hearings — both virtual and in-person.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press