Omicron wave may be peaking, but modelling shows COVID-19 hospitalizations to surge

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OTTAWA — Canada may be approaching the peak of the Omicron wave of COVID-19, but federal health experts still expect the high number of cases to drive a surge in daily hospitalizations in coming weeks.

New federal modelling released Friday shows the wave may be cresting — or just about to — but health experts won't know for sure for another week or so.

"It's quite possible that in the next few days we will see that peak, at least in the number of cases," chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said at a briefing.

This wave is expected to top out at between 170,000 and 300,000 actual daily cases and recede into February, based on available data.

"The true number of daily cases, driven by extremely high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, could still vastly exceed anything we have experienced to date during this pandemic," Tam said.

Current national case counts show about 37,500 new cases are reported daily, but those are far underestimated because many parts of the country no longer provide laboratory tests for the majority of the population.

About 28 per cent of lab tests that are performed are coming back positive.

"The current very high positivity rate shows that COVID-19 is widespread and that case counts underestimate the true burden of infection in the broader population," Tam said.

The number of hospitalizations also help to give a clearer picture of how the virus is sweeping through the population, she said.

Though the rate of people who are hospitalized with Omicron is lower compared to the Delta variant, the forecast shows new daily hospital admissions will far exceed previous historical peaks due to the sheer number of cases.

Since the government's previous update before the holidays, the number of people with COVID-19 treated in hospitals has more than quadrupled to an average of over 6,779 daily, the federal numbers show.

The Public Health Agency of Canada expects the high number of people seeking hospital treatment for COVID-19 will put a significant strain on health-care systems over the next several weeks.

Some parts of the United States and United Kingdom have already reported their COVID-19 cases have begun to stabilize, and Tam hopes Canada is following the same trajectory.

Quebec has already pronounced the latest wave is cresting, and will therefore lift its controversial 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on Monday.

And Nunavut officials said the tough measures it implemented just before Christmas have been so effective that it's cancelling travel restrictions on Monday, allowing businesses to reopen and schools to resume in-person learning on Jan. 24.

Provinces that were hit by the Omicron wave first will also likely be among the first to see signs of stabilization, Tam said, but she warned that changes to public health restrictions could change the trajectory of the virus.

"For example, as people go back to school and work those cases could come back so it won't be necessarily a smooth curve downwards," she said.

It's a different story in New Brunswick, where new restrictions came into effect Friday limiting residents to a single-household bubble while also closing gyms, entertainment venues and indoor dining at restaurants.

In neighbouring Prince Edward Island where chief medical health officer Dr. Heather Morrison says the "worst of this wave" is yet to come, current restrictions that include business capacity limits and remote learning for school students will be extended.

Tam said the surest way out of this wave remains vaccination.

The trends show unvaccinated people are 19 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to fully vaccinated people.

"We need to continue efforts to increase vaccine coverage to enhance protection for everyone we can," Tam said.

Even the downside of the curve will have considerable health system impacts, she warned.

She urged Canadians to get up to date on their vaccines and continue to follow public health measures and limit contacts outside their households.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2022.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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