People leave a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Omicron may be peaking but COVID-19 isn’t done with us just yet: Tam

OTTAWA — Canada’s chief public health officer says there are positive signs the Omicron wave is peaking in this country, but no one should start choreographing a COVID-19 victory dance.

“There is no doubt that nobody wants to have all these restrictive measures anymore, and Omicron may or may not have put us one step toward that new reality,” Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday during a COVID-19 briefing in Ottawa.

“We need to plan for the different scenarios and just be ready for a time of emergence of new variants. But we’ve got to move on and see how we can make our societal functions closer to what they were before the pandemic.”

Tam said that in the last week, case rates, the share of tests coming back positive, and wastewater surveillance are all showing “early indications” that Omicron has peaked nationally.

Her comments echoed statements the day before from several provinces, including Alberta, where Premier Jason Kenney said cases were starting to plateau, and Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford is so confident the fifth wave has crested he announced restrictions on public spaces will start to be lifted in 10 days.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said Friday while the peak in cases and hospitalizations hasn’t happened there yet, he is optimistic that the lockdown imposed Jan. 15 can be lifted at the end of the month.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Thursday he wasn’t lifting restrictions because the situation remained too fragile. But the province’s restaurant association is fielding hundreds of calls from frustrated restaurant and bar owners ready to defy the closure order if the restriction banning indoor dining isn’t lifted soon.

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday hospitalizations appear to be declining from record highs earlier in the week, but restrictions such as bar and nightclub closures will remain because of high community transmission.

While patient numbers in some provinces show signs of stabilizing, there remains a heavy strain on hospitals.

More than 10,000 Canadians were in hospital with COVID-19 over the last week, up almost 50 per cent from the previous week. Tam says that is higher than at any other point in the pandemic.

Intensive-care units treated an average of 1,100 patients a day over the last week, higher than in any previous wave other than the Delta surge last spring.

The high patient numbers are compounded by staff illnesses, adding further stress. The Saskatchewan Health Authority reported this week almost one-fifth of its health workforce is off sick or isolating because of COVID-19.

The absences have left the authority to seek 500 government workers from other departments to volunteer to help out with non-medical roles like cleaning, cooking, or assisting patients to eat or get dressed, in hospitals and long-term care homes.

Health Canada data also show January will go down as one of the deadliest months in the pandemic to date. New deaths climbed above 100 per day this week for the first time in almost a year.

Tam said an average of 131 people died every day in Canada from COVID-19 since Jan. 14, up from an average of 82 a week earlier, and 39 in the first week of January.

Tam said “the sheer volume of cases” is resulting in much higher hospitalization numbers and deaths, even though evidence suggests the combination of vaccines and the traits of Omicron have reduced the rate of serious illness among infected patients.

That appears to be particularly true for children, who have seen more hospitalizations and deaths in January than in previous months. Tam said the overall risk for severe illness among children remains very low.

Tam said the risk of severe illness still is highest among seniors. Health Canada data show 80 per cent of people who died in January, as well as half of those hospitalized and 40 per cent of those needing critical care, were over the age of 70.

“But all to say though, is Omicron can cause serious outcomes.,” Tam said. “We cannot trivialize this virus. Many people, particularly those at high risk, can get very severely sick and indeed, many have died and we need to do what we can to prevent those.”

Because the spread of Omicron overwhelmed testing capacity last month, the number of daily cases reported no longer reflects anywhere close to the actual number of people getting sick.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine estimated in mid-January that only five per cent of cases were being recorded now, and that daily new infections worldwide were actually 10 times the case load at the peak of the Delta wave in April 2021.

The study, published Wednesday in The Lancet, said models expect by the end of March that 50 per cent of everyone in the world will have had Omicron. They predicted after Omicron, COVID-19 is going to be more like a seasonal flu virus.

“The era of extraordinary measures by government and societies to control SARS-CoV-2 transmission will be over,” the study concluded. “After the Omicron wave, COVID-19 will return but the pandemic will not.”

Tam said the possibility of new, more severe variants still poses a risk to future planning, but that it is time for governments and public health experts to “lay out a strategy and a plan towards moving back to something that is nearer normalcy.”