The rapidly spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19 pushed hospital admissions further toward dangerous levels over the weekend in Eastern Canada, as children in the westernmost provinces prepared to return to classrooms on Monday.
The vast majority of Omicron cases are mild – more mild than those associated with previous COVID-19 variants, experts are increasingly comfortable saying – but the sheer volume of infections is pushing some hospitals beyond their capacity limits.
On Sunday, Quebec reported 140 new admissions of COVID-19 patients to hospitals, for a total of 2,436. Intensive care cases jumped to 257. In Ontario, hospitalizations reached 2,419, although not all hospitals in the province report case numbers on weekends. There were 412 COVID-19 patients in Ontario ICUs.
Last week, after doctors at Bluewater Health in Sarnia, Ont., saw COVID-19 case numbers quadruple from pre-Christmas levels, they released an open letter to their community: “Our best guidance … is to please stay at home (don’t socialize), get vaccinated/boosted as soon as possible and wear a mask in public indoor spaces,” it said.
Mike Haddad, Bluewater’s chief of staff, said the hospital’s intensive-care unit and medical floor are both at capacity, mostly with unvaccinated patients. In Lambton County, where Sarnia is located, COVID-19 vaccination rates are below the provincial average. Sometimes patients who have been hospitalized will get a chance to talk about some of the vaccine misinformation they’ve heard, then they’ll ask to be inoculated when it’s too late to help, Dr. Haddad said. His hope is to reach more people before they’re infected.
“The patients come to us and trust that we will do our best to save them using science. It’s that same science that created vaccination over many decades,” Dr. Haddad said.
At Hamilton Health Science’s Juravinski Hospital, the ICU is operating above capacity. Staff have had to double up patients in critical care rooms.
“When the Omicron numbers started to escalate in mid-December, the ICU numbers were holding stable … But around Christmas we started to see them go up. And they’ve just continued to go up,” said Bram Rochwerg, an ICU physician and Juravinski’s site lead.
Last spring, ICU cases in Ontario topped 900, but Dr. Rochwerg cautioned that hospitals are so short staffed right now that the system would not be able to manage anything close to that again. Some staff are away with COVID-19 infections or exposures. Others have had to take stress leaves, he said.
Elyse Berger Pelletier, an emergency room physician at Hôtel-Dieu de Lévis, in Lévis, Que., reported the same problem: “We have empty beds, it’s just we don’t have nurses to take care of patients” she said.
In Laval, intensive care doctor Joseph Dahine said part of the recent surge in admissions is coming from non-COVID-19 patients, whose health care was delayed during previous waves of the pandemic, when people sick with the virus inundated hospitals.
“These patients are sicker than ever. Their care is on hold but their underlying disease is not. Their cancer advances. They come in with a heart attack because they didn’t get their symptoms checked,” Dr. Dahine said.
As Omicron spreads across the country, schools in Alberta and British Columbia will resume classes on Monday after both provinces’ governments imposed an extra week off to provide time to put in place more stringent safety measures following the Christmas break. Schools in Saskatchewan – which on Friday broke its daily infection record with 1,170 new cases – started on schedule last week. (Students in Ontario and Quebec are now attending classes online. In-person learning is set to resume Jan. 17.)
Some parents and advocates worry that protection measures currently in place in schools are insufficient, given how contagious Omicron is and the relatively low vaccination rates among younger children.
Julia Hengstler, a member of the Safe Schools Coalition BC advocacy group, has decided to keep her son home. Ms. Hengstler said her biggest concerns are the province’s relaxed physical distancing guidelines and its lack of investment in technology – such as HEPA filters and high-quality masks – to reduce contagion in shared spaces.
B.C.’s education ministry said measures instituted since the start of the pandemic will remain, including mask wearing and physical distancing, staggered start and stop times for activities, and reconfigured classrooms. The ministry has set aside 500,000 rapid tests for kindergarten to Grade 12.
Questions about safety are also weighing on Alberta parents as they face sending their kids back into classrooms.
Wing Li, the communications director for Support our Students Alberta, a parent advocacy group, said all schools across the province should offer remote learning for families that prefer it. As it stands, not all do, she said, which has led some parents to be concerned that Omicron will force kids back home again.
“It’s going to be like phase six of this roller coaster of remote learning and back in class,” Ms. Li said. She added that she plans to send her child back to school on Monday and then monitor the situation.
Educators are concerned that more has not been done to address classroom safety, said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers Association. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s government has pledged to distribute rapid tests and medical-grade masks to schools, though those are not expected to arrive until the end of this week at the earliest.
“So, we’re going to start schools without everybody getting the bare minimum of what the government said they were going to put in place, and that’s causing a lot of anxiety and stress amongst people,” Mr. Schilling said.
Alberta’s health ministry said it weighed the risks of the virus to children against the possibility that being away from school will affect their mental health, learning and social interaction. It said infection presents a low risk for children, especially vaccinated ones. Government statistics show that 80 per cent of 12-to-17-year-olds in the province have had two doses. About 37 per cent of Alberta five-to-11-year-olds have had at least one shot.
Joan Robinson, a pediatric infectious diseases physician in Edmonton, said the greater risk to children is continued time away from the classroom.
She said her opinion on school closures would change if a variant appeared that caused more severe illness in children.
“The reality is, unless a whole family is living like hermits, even if the child doesn’t go to school, there’s still a reasonable chance that – with Omicron out there – someone in the household is going to bring COVID home anyway,” Dr. Robinson said.
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