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Ambulance crew members deliver a patient at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital as officials warned of a 'tsunami' of new COVID-19 cases in the days and weeks ahead due to the Omicron variant.COLE BURSTON/Reuters

Canada’s health care system is overwhelmed, and this problem existed before the pandemic, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says.

“The capacity is stretched too thin, certainly in the current emergency context but more broadly, I think, most Canadians would agree that even before COVID-19, our capacity was often stretched too thin,” Mr. Duclos said at a briefing in Ottawa on Friday.

Mr. Duclos also said he believes provinces and territories, with the support of the federal government, will want to have a conversation over the next weeks and months about whether to make vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory. The decision would be up to the provincial and territorial governments, he said, adding that he personally thinks a mandate will be required at some point.

Mr. Duclos said personal protective equipment, physical distancing and testing are “all very important tools,” but what will help the country move through the crisis of COVID-19 and bring it to an end is vaccination.

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He noted that 50 per cent of hospitalizations now in Quebec are among those who have not been vaccinated, and that is a burden on health care workers and society.

“What we know is that our health care system in Canada is fragile,” he said. “People are tired.”

The broader issue of health care capacity is a major concern among health care providers and experts, and that has increased since the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Many doctors have said the system is swamped with COVID-19 patients, and medical professionals, who are operating under very challenging circumstances in many regions, are experiencing burnout.

Provincial governments have called for an increase in the Canada Health Transfer (CHT), payments Ottawa provides for health care and to support principles of the Canada Health Act, including accessibility.

In December, 2011, the former Conservative government announced that CHT cash levels would grow at 6 per cent until 2016-2017. Beginning in 2017-2018, the total health transfers have grown in line with a three-year moving average of nominal gross domestic product, with a guaranteed increase of at least 3 per cent annually.

The premiers want Ottawa to increase its contribution to health care costs to 35 per cent from 22 per cent, which would amount to about $28-billion more this year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he is willing to renegotiate federal health transfers, but only when the pandemic is over.

Mr. Duclos said on Friday that during COVID-19, Ottawa has spent a total of $63-billion for health care in addition to other transfers. He added that another $25-billion was promised during the fall election campaign to address a range of issues, particularly a shortage of medical staff, which is a “tremendous problem” across the country.

In response to recent calls for Ottawa to tap the Canadian Armed Forces for health care workers, he said the forces have only about 70,000 personnel, which is eight times less than the population of Quebec City.

Mr. Duclos said the government’s role is to provide non-human resources such as vaccines, rapid tests and personal protective equipment.

NDP health critic Don Davies said on Friday it is encouraging that the federal health minister is “acknowledging reality” when it comes to health care capacity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed chronic weakness in the public-health system, and the need to address this is real and the time is now, he said.

Mr. Davies added that there is a very strong consensus in the general public and among the provinces about the need for a “generational investment” in long-term funding that is stable and predictable, adding this can be achieved through an increase to the CHT.

During the election campaign, the federal Conservatives promised that if they formed government, they would meet with premiers within the first 100 days to propose a new health agreement to boost the annual rate of increase to the CHT to at least 6 per cent. The party said this would amount to $60-billion being spent on the health care system over the next decade.

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