The Saskatchewan government has started providing a new breakdown of COVID-19 hospitalization numbers in its public reporting process.
The province now distinguishes between people who are in hospital due to COVID-19 and incidental cases of the disease. Incidental cases are people who are in hospital for other reasons and have no COVID symptoms, but test positive for the virus following hospitalization, according to Saskatchewan's dashboard.
"If you're in for an arm fracture and then during [the] normal screening process, you're found to be COVID-positive, you would show up in our numbers as a hospitalized COVID case," said Derek Miller, chief of emergency operations for the Saskatchewan Health Authority on Wednesday, one day before the new reporting mechanism started.
"That's one of the things we want to see clarified going forward."
The hospitalization numbers were categorized this way for the first time on Thursday, when the province's dashboard reported 100 total patients with the virus in Saskatchewan hospitals, 12 of them in ICU.
Of the non-ICU patients, 42 were admitted for COVID-19, 39 were incidental and seven were still undetermined, said the dashboard. Of the 12 ICU patients with COVID-19, one was an incidental, asymptomatic case.
"I think this differentiation is going to be very important to understand how severe Omicron is," said Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab on Thursday.
"It's critical for the health system to plan in terms of how many acute care beds they need, plus ICU beds."
COVID-19 cases complicate hospitalization, regardless of reason for admission, says Saskatoon doctor
The new distinction among hospitalized COVID-19 cases is a good idea, but proper communication will be important, says a Saskatoon intensive care specialist.
"We do not want to give people the impression that these 70, 80, 90 patients that were consistently in our ICUs in the previous wave were patients who were sick with something else," said Dr. Hassan Masri.
"They were indeed sick from COVID pneumonia. And so it is really important to understand that and not contribute to the misinformation that exists out there."
Masri said that even when people are in hospital for something other than COVID-19, an unrelated positive test result after admission can still complicate things.
Patients with the virus will have to be isolated from others or they will create outbreaks at the hospital, according to the Saskatoon doctor.
"Even if people are admitted and even if they don't have COVID pneumonia and they're not sick from a breathing perspective, it does not mean that it is a straightforward process," said Masri.
"It will carry its own level of complexities and challenges."
LISTEN | Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says province ignoring many risks workers are facing from Omicron
Saskatchewan Opposition Leader Ryan Meili agreed with Masri that regardless of the reason why someone is in hospital, if a patient has COVID-19 they need to be treated differently than someone without the disease.
"You are at greater risk of passing it to the patient in the next bed or to the health-care worker that might not be able to come to work for two weeks because they get sick as a result of being exposed," said Meili on Thursday.
"It is striking that the one major change we are seeing from this government is something to try to make people think this is a less serious situation than it is."
The province should focus on taking the necessary steps to keep people safe instead of splitting hair why someone is in hospital, according to Meili.
With the Omicron variant considered to be milder than other variants, Masri is concerned that people might downplay the disease.
"We know that we have among us people who are unvaccinated," said the Saskatoon physician.
"We have people who have immune system issues. And so we have to be very careful about throwing the term mild and giving people the wrong impression."
Many patients people will screen positive for Omicron, says Shahab
Due to the high transmission rate of Omicron, Shahab expects that hospitals will see a significant percentage of COVID-19 cases upon screening new patients, regardless of the reasons for admission to a clinic, he said on Thursday.
For some patients, COVID-19 might either complicate an existing illness, like a lung disease, or it might be totally unrelated to someone's hospitalization, or it might be the direct reason for someone's admission to a hospital, according to Shahab.
"In other jurisdictions we are seeing less direct hospitalizations to ICU … with just COVID," he said.
"But they are seeing people with underlying risk factors, especially those not boosted, being hospitalized and also requiring ICU care."