Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
It’s a word health officials have been careful about uttering as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 surged across the country, but the public is now hearing it after weeks of troubling headlines: Could we be at a peak?
Omicron has fuelled a fifth wave that has sent infection numbers to breathtaking highs, overwhelmed provincial testing systems and led to renewed warnings about the impact on hospitals – both because of the sheer number of infections but also because of the potential for so many health workers to be off sick with COVID-19.
Provincial governments have scaled back their testing systems to exclude most healthy people who aren’t health care workers, making it impossible to know exactly what the coronavirus is doing. But even in that limited data, there have been reasons to be hopeful.
The official daily case counts in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec have started to fall, and in Saskatchewan things appear to have levelled off. Alberta has not seen the same kind of reversal, though the seven-day average for new infections did not increase for the first time since the wave began. It is now just below 6,000 confirmed infections.
Even if we are seeing a peak in infections, at least in some provinces, the more pressing question for health officials is when hospital and ICU admissions could peak. Hospital admissions are a lagging indicator because it can take a week or two for someone to get sick enough to need to go to the hospital, and even longer for the ICU.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, released federal modelling data that indicated many provinces may be at a peak in infections but she said hospital admissions will still grow and that there is significant uncertainty about when the hospital numbers will start to decline.
B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, said Friday that community transmission appears to have peaked in her province and is now on a “downward trajectory.” But the next two weeks will be challenging for hospitals as she predicted that those numbers will continue to climb until Jan. 21. Dr. Henry said that even then it could be another week before they decline.
The model is based on limited testing data because B.C. scaled back testing in December, as did most other jurisdictions in Canada. Dr. Henry said she has confidence in the projections, however, because surveillance of wastewater – which tests for concentrations of the virus – has confirmed the same pattern of decline.
She added that the Omicron variant has meant patients are typically staying in hospital for a shorter period of time compared with those who have been infected with the Delta variant. Still, the province has already cancelled non-urgent surgeries.
“The next few weeks are going to be the most challenging yet on our health care system,” she said.
In Alberta, Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said the province is watching other data such as wastewater testing to keep track of where things are going. She’s noted that there are some instances where wastewater data is showing lower levels of COVID-19, but she said it’s difficult to read too much into a few data points, and she said it’s too early to tell what the overall trend is.
She said even if the province sees a peak soon, there will be continued pressure on the health care system. Dr. Hinshaw also noted that half of the cases of any wave come after the peak. She also said test positivity rates, which are at about 40 per cent, are very high.
Dr. Hinshaw has repeatedly pointed out that hospital admissions lag behind infections, so even when the province sees a peak in infections, hospital admissions will continue increasing. The number of people in hospital for COVID-19 has nearly tripled since late December, and ICU admissions are up about 50 per cent – although both of those numbers remain lower than the previous wave.
Premier Jason Kenney said other places in the world have seen peaks about four weeks into their Omicron waves, and it’s been almost four weeks since cases started to surge in Alberta. Mr. Kenney said he’s optimistic that Alberta is near a peak but he warned that the province needs to remain cautious.
“We don’t know exactly how this will happen in Alberta,” he said.
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.ai