Independent modelling group warns of record hospitalizations in B.C. due to Omicron variant

·3 min read
A stretcher sits outside of St. Paul’s Hospital emergency entrance in Vancouver, British Columbia. An independent modelling group is warning of the load on B.C.'s hospitals due to the Omicron variant and is asking for further public health measures. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A stretcher sits outside of St. Paul’s Hospital emergency entrance in Vancouver, British Columbia. An independent modelling group is warning of the load on B.C.'s hospitals due to the Omicron variant and is asking for further public health measures. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A report from an independent COVID-19 modelling group says hospitalizations due to B.C.'s Omicron-fueled fifth wave will reach unprecedented heights by around mid-January.

The report, published on Thursday, says cases of the Omicron variant are increasing by around 23 to 29 per cent per day. The rate of transmission means Omicron cases are doubling approximately every three days.

It is currently unclear how severe an Omicron infection is compared to the previously-dominant Delta variant, according to the authors, who consist of experts from the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.

However, the modelling group warns that even if Omicron is considerably less severe than Delta, hospitals in B.C. are likely to be overwhelmed due to the fifth wave.

"We expect [the] number of people in hospital to exceed that previously seen in the pandemic by mid January," the report says.

"Only if Omicron is much less severe (more than a 10-fold reduction in severity) would rising case numbers not lead to a crunch in hospitals."

Dr. Sarah Otto, a professor at the University of B.C. and a member of the independent modelling group, says the rapid spread of the Omicron variant means officials have less time to react compared to previous waves.

"We don't really have that time with Omicron," she told Gloria Macarenko, host of CBC's On The Coast. "Now is the time to just be really strict with yourself."

COVID-19 in British Columbia by the numbers

B.C. has already broken its daily case record twice in two days. On Wednesday, the province recorded 1,528 cases, a 161 per cent increase in daily case numbers compared to the previous week.

The models show that record numbers will continue to be set for a while, well into the start of 2022.

However, the report also notes that new public health restrictions introduced on Tuesday will change transmission rates in an unpredictable way.

The emerging data on how vaccination affects immunity to the Omicron variant, now the dominant variant in B.C., also means future projections beyond January are murky, according to the modellers.

Daily COVID-19 vaccination progress in B.C.

Booster shot campaign needed, modeller says

The report says that booster vaccine doses provide for better protection against the Omicron variant, which would reduce hospitalizations and daily cases.

B.C. is currently providing booster doses based on age and clinical vulnerability, with just over 760,000 people having been given a booster shot as of Wednesday.

The new targeted completion date, announced on Tuesday, for B.C.'s booster program is now the end of March instead of May.

However, Otto says an immediate booster rollout or a strict lockdown is needed to prevent a surge in hospitalizations.

"If we could get another … 50 percent of the population boosted, that is that 50 percent of the population not needing hospital care next month," she said.

"If we wait to see whether the hospitals are overwhelmed, it is long past time where we have options."

Modellers say that if testing sites and hospitals, already stretched thin, become overwhelmed, future analysis on infection rates will prove to be difficult in B.C.

"We will get over this wall," Otto said. "In a couple of months, we're going to be in a good position … we'll have boosted our immunity because of Omicron."

"My concern is — who's not going to make it with us through that wall?"

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