The Omicron wave of COVID-19 may have peaked in Canada, according to Canada’s top doctors.
While limited testing capacity means daily case numbers are still inaccurate, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said a number of indicators — including test positivity rates and wastewater surveillance — show signs of a slow in spread.
“Last week’s modelling update illustrated how the large surge in Omicron infections is likely to peak in January and then recede into February,” Tam said.
“In the week since the modelling, there are early indications that infections may have peaked at the national level.”
There were just shy of 24,000 COVID-19 cases reported in Canada on Friday, according to the federal government’s figures. That brings the total active — if underestimated — cases to more than 298,000. The average case count has decreased by 28 per cent compared with the previous week, according to Tam, but she warned that the 22 per cent test positivity rate indicates there is still “widespread” disease activity across the country.
“We still have some difficult weeks ahead and potential for more bumps along the way,” Tam said.
One such bump is the continued strain on hospitals, Tam warned. Hospitalizations are continuing to rise, she said, and they’re shattering records.
An average of more than 10,000 people were being treated in the hospitals each day during the last seven days, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. That number, it said, is 38 per cent higher than last week “and exceeds all previous peaks.”
“Many hospitals across Canada are under intense strain,” Tam said.
And while Omicron is proving to be slightly less severe, that doesn’t mean it’s not a dangerous virus. Omicron can still cause — and is causing — “serious outcomes,” Tam said.
“We cannot trivialize this virus. Many people who are, particularly those at high risk, can get very severely sick and indeed many have died,” she explained.
“And we need to do what we can to prevent those.”
How can you help keep COVID hospitalizations down?
There are steps Canadians can take to stay safe as Omicron continues to spread. Ensuring your vaccinations are up to date, wearing a mask and limiting in-person contacts are all things that will “help to ease the path to better days ahead,” according to Tam.
“Evidence continues to show that being vaccinated with two or more doses of COVID-19 vaccines lowers the risk of hospital admission as well,” Tam said.
In fact, she added, having a booster dose provides “better protection against severe illness from Omicron, in particular.”
Boosters were 90 per cent effective at preventing hospitalizations in ten U.S. states between December and January, according to a new study from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study, released Friday, looked at almost 88,000 hospitalizations. It found that getting two doses was just 57 per cent effective at preventing hospitalizations six months past the second dose.
But despite the success of booster doses, the jury’s still out on whether the government will change the definition of fully vaccinated.
Provinces determine what “fully vaccinated” means in the context of vaccine mandates, Tam explained, but she said officials “will be discussing this going forward,” particularly when more people have had the opportunity to access booster doses.
“Everyone should try and get their boosters as soon as they’re eligible,” Tam said.
The terminology around vaccination can be tricky, Tam’s deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, told reporters on Friday
For some people, their “primary series” of vaccines is two doses, because they get a strong immune response from those two doses, he said. But for others, such as those who “may not be able to mount a good immune response” after two shots, it might take a third dose to get their immunity up to snuff — and that means their primary series actually consists of three doses, Njoo said.
A booster, on the other hand, is when you already had a strong immune response to your “primary series,” whether it’s two or three doses, but over time that protection waned — and now, you want to beef up protection, Njoo said.
Booster doses have “not been built into the definition, for administrative purposes, of whether you can enter a certain space or go and do certain tasks, or indeed for international travel,” Tam said.
“That has not changed.”
While that will be re-examined going forward, “now’s not the right time,” Tam said.
“Not everybody had the chance to get the additional dose or getting up to date, not in Canada and certainly not globally. So we will need to reexamine that posture in the future.”