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The ongoing spread of COVID-19′s Omicron variant in Nova Scotia prompted a stern warning Wednesday from the province’s chief medical officer, who noted the increasing pressure on the health system.

Dr. Robert Strang took aim at the notion that the rapidly spreading coronavirus variant isn’t as serious as previous waves of COVID-19.

“If you don’t think Omicron is a big deal, you are absolutely wrong,” Strang told a news conference. “There’s no doubt we are in a very serious situation, the most serious we have been in during this entire pandemic, given all the pressures on our health-care system.”

The province reported 837 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and one more death – a woman in her 60s in the province’s western zone. Officials estimate there are 6,867 active cases.

Strang said that in recent days, between 500 and 700 health workers have been off the job due to the virus, creating staff shortages across the system, from long-term care to emergency health services. As a result, he said, workers have seen their teams reduced or have been redeployed to other areas in need. The province has about 22,000 health-care workers in total.

For people who are not staying home when they are sick, who aren’t following the rules for testing and isolation or who aren’t vaccinated, Strang had a message: “You are contributing to Omicron spreading at a faster rate. You are contributing to the immense pressure on our health-care system and you are potentially putting someone you know and love at risk.”

Officials say there are currently 60 people in hospital as a result of an infection, with five patients in intensive care. The numbers include a child who is under five years of age. Officials said about 25 per cent of people who are in hospital with the disease are not vaccinated.

Strang said the increased patient volumes are adding to the stress of already overworked staff.

Charbel Daniel, executive director of provincial operations for Emergency Health Services, said the strain is also being felt by the province’s ambulance service. “As exposure rates increase, that’s affecting the work force and the team members that are currently at work right now,” Daniel said in an interview Wednesday.

He said 60 of the service’s 1,200 staff members are off the job due to illness or exposure. “The burden of trying to carry the number of calls that come in is then spread out across the work force,” Daniel said.

As a result, he said, the time between an ambulance arriving at a hospital emergency room in the Halifax area and the patient’s admission is averaging between three and six hours – delays that can tie up as many as 12 ambulances as they wait to hand off patients. Outside Halifax, he said the so-called off-load times are averaging between one and three hours. Overall, that’s also affected ambulance response times, adding one to three minutes to each call on average.

Despite the challenges, Daniel said people should have confidence in the system. “An ambulance will come and proper care and treatment will be provided, however these delays that we are seeing, especially with non-urgent calls, are real.”

Although he didn’t go into details, Daniel said there are contingency plans in the event staffing shortages worsen. “We are confident those plans ... will continue to bridge the gaps as required,” he said.

Meanwhile, Premier Tim Houston confirmed Wednesday that public school students will return to in-person classes on Monday as planned. Houston also said 25,000 COVID-19 rapid tests will be distributed to 400 schools based on enrolment.

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