Severe illness not rising as fast as ‘enormous’ number of Omicron infections: Tam

Click to play video: 'Severe illness not expected to rise while COVID-19 cases skyrocket due to Omicron: Tam'
Severe illness not expected to rise while COVID-19 cases skyrocket due to Omicron: Tam
WATCH: Severe illness not expected to rise while COVID-19 cases skyrocket due to Omicron: Tam – Jan 7, 2022

The Omicron variant is causing an “enormous” number of COVID-19 infections, but severe illness is not rising at the same pace, Canada’s top doctor says.

Dr. Theresa Tam said during a COVID-19 update on Friday that Omicron has driven daily case counts up by 65 per cent compared with last week, with an average of roughly 42,000 cases being reported daily over the past week up to Wednesday.

While evidence suggests the risk of hospitalization from Omicron is lower compared with Delta, the new variant’s rapid acceleration is driving a rise in hospital admissions, Tam added. However, she said although current daily case counts are already 400 per cent higher than the peak of the third wave last year, severe illness is not spiking at the same pace.

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Roughly 3,650 people with COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals daily, with almost 600 in intensive care units, representing weekly increases of 91 per cent and 25 per cent, respectively, Tam said. On average, 39 deaths were reported each day.

With testing capacity strained in many areas of Canada, which is resulting in the underestimation of case numbers, other indicators like laboratory test positivity and hospitalizations are being used to measure the progress of the virus, Tam said.

She added that the portion of laboratory tests coming back positive is estimated at 29 per cent, indicating significant community transmission.

Tam also urged the seven million eligible Canadians who have not yet received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine to do so, while also calling for everyone else to get a booster shot when they can.

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In the meantime, people should limit in-person contacts to immediate household members as much as possible, she added.

“This might feel like a double marathon that we didn’t sign up for,” Tam said.

“But despite feeling tired, we should have a sense of achievement for the ground we have covered so far, for staying on track and knowing we can still draw strength from each other to get where we need to go.”

Omicron impacting Canadian society

Omicron’s impact is widespread in Canada, be it rising case counts and hospitalizations, testing supply issues or staff shortages in the health-care sector.

With demands for testing so high, the federal government said Wednesday that it is sending 140 million rapid antigen tests to provinces in January.

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The tests, while less sensitive compared with PCR testing, have become a key component in provincial COVID-19 responses to ease pressure on health systems during the wave.

However, their popularity has resulted in supply shortages across the country. Before the holidays, millions of people snapped them up when they could, some standing in hours-long lines at shopping malls and liquor stores.

Omicron has strained not only the testing system, but the workforce as well.

In Ontario, where the number of COVID-19 hospital patients is rising, numerous hospitals are reporting massive staff absences due to COVID-19 sickness.

Outbreaks in the province’s long-term care homes have led to staff absences of 20 to 30 per cent in some areas.

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In Quebec, the government said about 20,000 health-care workers are off the job after testing positive or being exposed to the virus. Furthermore, four federal prisons in the province said they’re now “very close” to experiencing staff shortages from COVID-19. Hospitals in New Brunswick said they, too, are struggling with staffing issues.

Police forces in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg are facing similar staffing issues, as are Winnipeg Transit and the fire department in Prince Rupert in northwestern British Columbia.

Infrastructure Minister Dominic LeBlanc, who was at the COVID-19 update on Friday, said the federal government in anticipating more provinces and territories to submit requests for their help in the coming weeks.

Click to play video: 'Growing call for help amid COVID-19 outbreak at Bearskin Lake First Nation'
Growing call for help amid COVID-19 outbreak at Bearskin Lake First Nation

The federal government has already sent 200 Canadian Armed Forces members to Quebec to help with its vaccine rollout. Ottawa has also received a request from Ontario to help in Bearskin Lake First Nation, a community experiencing a severe COVID-19 outbreak.

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“It shouldn’t surprise anybody that it’s not a limitless number of federal health-care resources that we can bring to bear,” LeBlanc said.

“So our job is to take absolutely everything we can and allocate it in the most effective way to support all of our partners … to come through the other side, particularly of this urgency around the Omicron variant.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

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