As parts of Canada see staggering rises in COVID-19 activity amid Omicron's rapid spread, experts say the highly transmissible variant is training a spotlight on social inequities across the country.
Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician in Mississauga, Ont., says Omicron's rise continues to show "a tale of two pandemics — rich and poor," with those who can afford to better protect themselves versus those who can't.
Dr. Andrew Boozary, who leads the Social Medicine Program at Toronto's University Health Network, says that while many essential workers have had two doses of a vaccine, third-dose uptake has been slower among lower-income populations.
Health experts recommend booster shots to increase protection, especially against severe disease and death, both of which appear to be on the rise in parts of Canada.
Ontario reported 2,594 patients in hospital with COVID-19 on Saturday, including 385 in intensive care, while Quebec reported 44 deaths attributed to the virus, its highest daily death toll in nearly a year.
Figures released Saturday in Atlantic Canada, meanwhile, show continued growth in COVID-19 cases there, with hospitals around the region reporting they are nearing or over capacity.
The number of people in New Brunswick hospitals rose from 69 to 80, with 17 of those in intensive care and 11 on ventilators.
While Omicron is thought to cause less severe disease in some people, experts say characterizing the variant as "mild" can be problematic.
"You hear people say: 'Why are you worried about Omicron? If you're healthy and young, it's no problem, it's just a cold.' And that's false," Boozary said. "It's completely dismissing the reality of millions of people in this country.
"It's that complete ableist language and tone and policy that's putting millions of people at risk."
Essential workers bore the brunt of COVID-19 infections during Canada's Delta wave last spring, and Arya says low-wage employees are likely to experience that again.
He says lower-income populations, which make up the majority of essential workers, often can't afford to buy upgraded N95 masks or rapid antigen tests, nor can they easily take time off work to isolate or get their booster doses.
As provinces scale back eligibility for PCR testing, Arya pointed out that private testing companies in Ontario, which can offer same-day results for those willing to pay $160 or more for the service, further show the income divide in how people can deal with COVID-19.
"If you have money, you're able to afford the protection you need to survive and be safe," he said.
Ontario's Saturday hospitalization numbers were up from the previous day's count of 2,472 patients hospitalized and 338 in intensive care units. There were also 31 new deaths linked to the virus.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 248 ICU patients are not fully vaccinated or have an unknown immunization status, and 137 are fully vaccinated.
The province also reported 13,362 new COVID-19 cases, but Public Health Ontario says the actual case count is likely higher due to current testing policies that limit access for many residents.
Quebec cited an 11 per cent rise in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, with health officials counting 2,296 patients in hospital — 163 more than the day before — including 245 people in intensive care, a rise of 16 from the previous day.
The province's 44 deaths, up from 27 a day earlier, marks the worst tally since Jan. 27, 2021, when 45 deaths were reported.
Quebec also recorded 15,928 new cases of COVID-19.
Nova Scotia reported 1,145 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, with the province saying it is now limiting contact tracing to long-term care settings, healthcare facilities, correctional facilities, shelters and other group environments.
New Brunswick had 421 new cases and one new death.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2022.
Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press