Good morning! Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.
In the early days of the pandemic, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s briefings became a calm refuge of measured advice and gentle encouragement. People wrote songs about her, put her image into downtown graffiti and Vancouver designer John Fluevog created a shoe named after her, which quickly sold.
As we head into the third year of the pandemic, Dr. Henry’s shoe is on sale and her orders and guidance are frequently challenged bluntly by reporters in those same briefings. Dr. Henry’s cool is rarely ruffled, but neither does she veer into the kind of sunny predictions that have come back to bite Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. So her reference Tuesday to a blessedly short timeline for the current Omicron wave was noteworthy.
Dr. Henry noted the explosion of COVID-19 cases continues and will likely go on “for the next few weeks.” B.C. reached a peak of 4,074 cases on Dec. 21, but those numbers have dipped by about half, partly because the province’s testing capacity has collapsed and B.C. officials have been telling people for two weeks not to get tested if they only have mild symptoms.
Hospitalizations are going up too, lagging as always behind the case counts. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province’s hospitals are at 95.6-per-cent capacity, counting all kinds of patients, not just those with COVID-19. The province also has added extra emergency beds to help with the pandemic and is considering the use of additional space, possibly at the Vancouver Convention Centre, if a field hospital is needed. Currently 97 people are in intensive care with COVID-19, compared to 66 on Dec. 29.
Alberta continues to see record-high case counts, even as it scales back access to PCR testing to a cover just a small group – largely health care workers as well as workers and residents at long-term care facilities. People considered high-risk due to health conditions are also eligible.
That has meant that Alberta’s lab testing system is identifying just a small fraction of overall cases, and that proportion is shrinking. Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, says PCR tests are likely only capturing about one in 10 infections. That means Alberta’s active cases, officially at about 59,000, could be 10 times that – about 13 per cent of the province’s population, or about one in eight people. And there is no sign that the virus’s quick march through Alberta’s population has slowed.
While Dr. Hinshaw has warned that the true impact on the hospital system could take some time to reveal itself, there are early signs that the province’s health care system could soon be under more strain. Overall hospital admissions have doubled in the past two weeks and intensive-care admissions are up about 50 per cent.
The precarious situation in Alberta and in neighbouring Saskatchewan have created chaos as schools return from winter break. Saskatchewan students returned as scheduled last week, while in-person learning in Alberta resumed Monday after a week’s delay.
But while urging people to abide by the regulations and personal safety measures that have now become routine, Dr. Henry indicated there are encouraging signs ahead, including the possibility that B.C. might be headed for the backside of the current wave.
“We’re getting the sense that we have levelled off somewhat and if we look at what we’re seeing in other jurisdictions that have been ahead of us in terms of this wave around Canada and the world, we may be soon be entering into the place where we will see a decline,” she told the briefing.
Matthew Anderson, the chief executive officer of Ontario Health, said the rate of increase in hospitalizations in the province was slowing and the percentage of tests turning up positive had slipped. But he said it was too early to draw conclusions. (The positivity rate was 24.4 per cent on Tuesday, down from 34.3 per cent on Jan. 2.) He also said he did not expect a large increase in spread from the province’s decision to send students back to classrooms next week.
Dr. Henry cautioned that she can’t be sure that Omicron’s time in the spotlight will end relatively soon. But she said that Britain is starting to see cases trend downwards and there has been a levelling off in parts of Canada. “Whether that is an artifact because of testing is something that we’re still working through.”
She also said the characteristics exhibited by Omicron offered some cautious hope, though the short term remains ugly. With explosive case counts and hospitalizations, Omicron cases generally are milder and those who do end up hospitalized – especially if they are vaccinated – don’t have to stay as long.
”We would expect from prior experience, from what we know about other diseases that transmit with a shorter incubation period and what we’re seeing in some other countries that are ahead of us in terms of this wave, I do believe we will see a shorter period of this wave with a steeper, much stronger increase as we’ve seen already.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.