With the Omicron COVID-19 variant rapidly taking hold in many Canadian provinces, some experts are looking overseas for a preview of what could happen next.
On Wednesday, the United Kingdom reported the highest number of cases since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 78,610, breaking the previous record set in January 2021. Health officials also confirmed the first death connected to Omicron on Tuesday. The country has massively accelerated its booster shot campaign in response.
“We’ve seen a rapid rise in Omicron cases,” said Dr. Linda Bauld, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh. More than 40 per cent of COVID-19 cases in London are Omicron, she said, and early estimates in Scotland suggest it accounts for at least a quarter of cases there too.
“So we are seeing this overtake Delta and contribute to rising number of infections in the community in general.”
The U.K. reported its first Omicron cases on Nov. 27, and Canada reported its first cases just a day later.
According to Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, Canada’s Omicron wave lags just a bit behind Britain’s.
“We are a little bit … a few days, maybe a week behind the European countries,” she said.
So far, Bauld said, only a small number of people are in hospital with the variant in the U.K., but she expects that to change as it’s still very early in this outbreak.
U.K. health officials seem to believe the same.
“The lag between infections and hospitalizations is around two weeks,” said U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid. “With infections rising so quickly, we’re likely to see a substantial rise in hospitalizations before any measures start to have an impact. So there really is no time to lose.”
Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, believes there is no time to lose here in Canada also.
“It’s about to start to be really challenging, for instance, in the U.K. and in Denmark. And we’re at the same level more or less, regarding the timelines,” he said.
“There is no way we can deal with this if we don’t react swiftly and we just need to be aware of that.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) also sounded the alarm on the Omicron variant Tuesday.
“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” said WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference.
He also expressed concern that people were dismissing Omicron as mild, given some early reports from South Africa showing lower rates of hospitalization among Omicron patients.
“Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.”
“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said.
Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious diseases specialist at Ontario’s Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centre, said that right now, there are reports that come to very different conclusions on whether the Omicron variant causes more or less severe illness than previous variants of COVID-19.
“That probably relates to the fact that when you put Omicron into any jurisdiction, it depends a lot on what was the status of vaccinations, what’s the status of public health measures, what’s the status of people who have previous infections, how much have you reduced the opportunities for the virus to transmit?” he said.
It’s hard to say at this point exactly what Omicron will look like in Canada and how hard it will hit hospitals, Evans said.
“The one thing we can be absolutely sure of is that this is a highly transmissible variant,” he said. “So we are going to see a big rise in cases.”
What can Canada do?
Bauld recommends that Canada follow the U.K.’s path in accelerating third doses of vaccine among the population.
Despite some early evidence that two doses of vaccine is less effective against infection with Omicron, she said, “we know that the booster in particular really mounts a good immune response. So I think we’re hoping that we will be able to ride this wave.”
Evans says non-vaccine measures could help too, such as reducing restaurant hours and capacity and imposing some gathering limits – as Kingston’s health officer put in place Monday night.
“I think it’s reasonable to do everything we can now to try to keep cases down and then watch and see,” he said.
If the rise in cases begins to affect settings like long-term care homes and hospitals, “there needs to be very quick action to accelerate measures to reduce transmission.”
— with files from Global News’ Jamie Mauracher and the Associated Press