Are Canadian hospitals prepared for another COVID surge? What experts say

Click to play video: 'Masks recommended on long flights amid COVID variant spread: WHO'
Masks recommended on long flights amid COVID variant spread: WHO
Countries should consider recommending passengers wear masks on long-haul flights to counter the latest Omicron subvariant of COVID-19, given its rapid spread across the U.S., World Health Organization (WHO) officials said on Tuesday. In Europe, the XBB.1.5 subvariant is being detected in small but growing numbers, WHO officials said in a press briefing – Jan 10, 2023

Over the last couple of years, Canada has been through several COVID-19 waves that have extensively strained the country’s health-care system. And now, with the number of confirmed cases of the new XBB.1.5 subvariant on the rise, concerns are growing over the preparedness of hospitals should there be more waves.

Dr. Melissa Yuan-Innes, emergency physician at the Hôpital Glengarry Memorial Hospital in Alexandria, Ont., said that their hospital isn’t preparing for another wave in any “special way,” simply because there isn’t room in the health-care system for a surge in cases.

“We don’t have the capacity. Our health-care system is starting to look like a set of dominos that you’re starting to knock over,” she told Global News.

'We don't have any magic'

“People call the hospital the first line of defense. We’re actually the last line of defense. We’re there if everything else fails. So, we’re asking you to do your part,” said Yuan-Innes.

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To avoid a surge, Glengarry Memorial hospital staff are continuing to wear personal protective equipment and the vast majority of them are vaccinated, according to Yuan-Innes.

But they are still short-staffed, she said.

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New Brunswick company helping Canada’s airports test wastewater for COVID-19

“It’s not a question of do we have enough experience with it, it’s do we have enough personnel,” she said. “And we don’t.

“We want you to stay healthy and you want to stay healthy,” she added. “So please don’t count on the system. We don’t have any magic.

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“Vaccination is the best step to take here because it makes your body recognize the disease instead of having to start from scratch,” Yuan-Innes said.

Hospitals have been battered with numerous waves of the coronavirus over the last three years, but according to Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital, upcoming waves, if any, won’t impact the health-care system the same way they previously did.

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And that is because “we have two things going for us,” he told Global News.

“One is pretty high rates of vaccination.”

“But on top of that, we can’t ignore that a significant portion of our population has been infected and recovered from infection. When you combine recovery from infection with vaccination, it’s what’s called hybrid immunity and you have some pretty robust protection at the community level,” Bogoch explained.

“We’ve sort of been there, done that.”

Moreover, the XBB.1.5 subvariant that has already been found in 35 countries around the world isn’t spreading as fast as was first thought, he said.

“It’s still growing and still expanding, but at a smaller rate,” he added.

However, it’s still important to acknowledge that the subvariant is around in Canada and there is still a lot of uncertainty, he said.

Another COVID wave 'might happen'

As of Jan. 9, the total number of XBB.1.5 cases in Canada sat at 42, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

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This was double the number of confirmed cases reported from the week before.

“It’s important to never sweep anything under the rug,” Bogoch said. “We’ve dealt with some really, really challenging waves. That might happen again.”

According to Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre in British Columbia, the subvariant could likely become the dominant variant in Canada soon, especially given how rapidly it’s spreading in the United States and Asia.

Click to play video: 'New COVID variant detected in Canada'
New COVID variant detected in Canada

“It may spread more easily, it may attach to cells more easily, it may not be as susceptible to protection by vaccination as the original Omicron (variant) or as some of the other variants, so we need to keep an eye on this going forward,” he told Global News.

With concern about long COVID is still present, Conway added that there’s reason to be more cautious. The greater number of times someone becomes sick with the virus, the more susceptible they become to long COVID, he said.

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“So, if someone has had their vaccines, two vaccines let’s say, maybe even three,” Conway recommended that they get their bivalent boosters “as soon as they are able to.”

“I’d strongly encourage you to do so,” he said.

So far this year, some provinces have already seen an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

In Ontario, hospitals in Ottawa and Kitchener saw a record number of patients admitted this week. Factors at play range from respiratory illness to slips and falls commonly seen this time of year.

In a statement released last week, Queensway Carleton said it cared for 361 patients in a day. In Kitchener, Ont., Grand River Hospital said it cared for 295 patients in its emergency room in one day last week.

In provinces like British Columbia, however, cases of hospitalization have fallen, despite test positivity being up throughout the province. As of Jan. 5, there were 356 positive cases in hospital, down from 386 on Friday. The number of cases in critical care also fell from 34 to 25.

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In Alberta, COVID hospitalizations have seen a post-holiday dip as well. Data spanning from Jan. 5 to Jan. 9 noted 878 people in hospital — 34 fewer than the previous reporting period. ICU admissions dropped by nine, to 31.

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–With files from Global News’ Aya Al-Hakim & Amy Judd

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