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Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam is seen via videoconference as Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos speaks during an update on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The country’s top doctor says Canada is about to experience a major surge in COVID-19 cases and that health officials need to step up the use of rapid antigen tests, booster shots and other public-health tools in order to prevent closings, lockdowns and overwhelmed hospitals.

“We need to use everything we have available,” Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, said during a press briefing on Monday.

Dr. Tam said she expects cases of the Omicron variant to “rapidly escalate” in the coming days. Mounting evidence suggests the new variant is highly transmissible and that it can readily infect people who have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. While experts believe two doses will still protect against severe illness in many cases, the contagiousness of the variant means there will be more cases, which will ultimately lead to a surge in hospitalizations among people who are unvaccinated or undervaccinated.

Dr. Tam said the country is likely a week behind some of the European countries experiencing an Omicron surge and that now is the time to act to prevent some of the worst outcomes.

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New research shows that third doses of mRNA vaccines can offer significant protection against Omicron, prompting health experts to call on provinces to immediately open eligibility to everyone 18 and older. There has also been a growing public outcry over the lack of publicly available rapid antigen tests in much of Canada.

The tests aren’t as sensitive as molecular PCR tests, but they give results in minutes, meaning people can use them before going to work or a social gathering to detect possible COVID-19 infections. But with the exception of Nova Scotia, which gives rapid tests away free in many public places, most provinces are using them on a restricted basis. Some officials, including B.C.’s top doctor, Bonnie Henry, have suggested the tests aren’t very useful because most people who use them will have a negative result.

But Dr. Tam said the tests have an important role to play if Canada wants to keep the next COVID-19 surge from getting out of control. She said the tests can be used to help figure out where Omicron is spreading and are very important in high-risk work settings and remote or isolated communities. She added that rapid tests can also be used in schools to keep classrooms open.

Despite the arrival of Omicron, Dr. Tam said she remains optimistic about the eventual end of the pandemic. She said that the arrival of vaccines about a year ago reduced the overall mortality rate of COVID-19. As more people get vaccinated and build immunity to the virus, it will eventually transition away from being an urgent public-health emergency, she said.

Dr. Tam made the comments during a briefing to release her annual report. This year’s report focuses on the toll the pandemic has taken on health care workers and the system as a whole. Dr. Tam is calling on governments to prioritize public health and ensure public-health systems have adequate funding to address future challenges. She said governments also need to focus on recruiting and retaining health care workers, as many have been stretched thinly and are reporting burnout as a result of the pandemic.

Dr. Tam said gaps in Canada’s ability to collect data about the pandemic hindered the country’s response.

“This fragmentation, alongside outdated technology, has especially pronounced consequences during health emergencies when access to data for real-time decision-making is paramount,” she wrote. “There are still unacceptable delays in getting the right data to inform public-health decision-making. Societywide inequities persist, and key social and economic policies started during COVID-19 may not be sustained. These vulnerabilities could weaken Canada’s resilience to future health threats.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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