The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units across the country has reached a near record as the spread of more contagious variants drives up hospitalizations, prompting Ontario officials to scale back on non-urgent procedures.
Canada's chief public health officer says the number of new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern has doubled over the past week, with B.1.1.7, first identified in the U.K., "essentially replacing" pre-existing versions of the virus.
Dr. Theresa Tam said the rapid acceleration of these strains is fuelling a rapid COVID-19 resurgence that is sending more patients to hospital with severe illness, including young people, and threatens to push intensive care units to their limits.
"The race between the vaccine and the variants is at a critical point," Tam told reporters Friday. "It is clear that we need stronger control to combat variants of concern that are driving rapid epidemic growth in many areas of the country."
Last week, hospitals treated an average of more than 2,500 patients with COVID-19 each day, up seven per cent from the previous week, said Tam.
That includes 860 patients in intensive care units, she said, amounting to a 23 per cent increase over last week.
The recent rise in critical cases is approaching a peak seen earlier this year, when for the week ending Jan. 19 officials reported an average of 880 people in the ICU and 4,775 in hospital overall.
An average of more than 6,800 new cases and 30 deaths were reported daily over the past week, said Tam.
She said these numbers are consistent with the rapid resurgence trajectory outlined in federal forecasts two weeks ago.
Even as several provinces tightened public health restrictions this week, Tam warned that case counts will likely continue to climb as the fallout from holiday gatherings emerges in coming weeks.
"Many of my colleagues are of course worried about what happened at the Easter long weekend, so all of that will be playing out," said Tam. "Right now, what is of concern to me is the ICUs filling up."
To avoid this deadly scenario, Ontario hospitals have been instructed to start ramping down elective surgeries and non-urgent procedures next week to ensure they have resources to treat a growing number of COVID-19 patients.
The president and CEO of Ontario Health – which oversees the province's health system – told hospitals to make the move as the number of COVID-19 patients in the province's intensive care units hit a new high.
"Given increasing case counts and widespread community transmission across many parts of the province, we are facing mounting and extreme pressure on our critical care capacity," Matthew Anderson said in a memo issued Thursday night.
There were 552 patients with COVID-related critical illness in Ontario intensive care units as of Friday morning, according to the Ministry of Health.
Ontario also reported 4,227 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 18 additional deaths from the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April, 9.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press