Canada’s chief public health officer said Friday that cases of the Omicron variant have peaked nationwide and the number of new infections has dropped significantly over the past week.
Canada’s molecular testing system has been hampered by constrained capacity and staffing issues that have made PCR tests unavailable to many. Dr. Theresa Tam pointed to other indicators — daily case counts, test positivity rates and wastewater surveillance trends — that she said suggest Canada is now through the worst of the Omicron wave.
But the number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 is still at a record high, putting Canada’s health care system under severe strain.
There are more than 10,800 people with COVID-19 being treated in the country’s hospitals each day, with over 1,200 patients in the ICU. Canada is reporting an average of 168 COVID-19-related deaths daily.
As of Jan. 26, the seven-day average case count was over 19,000 — a 28 per cent drop since the previous week. Caseloads are declining across all age groups.
The lab positivity rate remains high — 19 per cent of all tests are coming back positive — but that figure has been gradually decreasing in recent weeks, which suggests the rate of community spread is slowing down.
“This reassures us that individual efforts, including layering on personal protections like masking and limiting in-person contacts, together with population-based public health measures, are helping to slow transmission and mitigate severe illness trends,” Tam told a press conference.
To tamp down the number of severe cases of COVID-19, Tam said, it’s critical that all eligible Canadians get a third dose of a mRNA vaccine.
Early research shows that a booster dose offers much more protection against an Omicron infection and dramatically lowers the risk of severe illness.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) reported earlier this month that the primary series of vaccines — the first two doses of an mRNA product — offer “low” to “very low” protection against an Omicron infection. That makes getting a third shot much more important.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recently updated its booster dose guidance. It’s now saying that children aged five to 11 who are moderately to severely immunocompromised should get a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. NACI previously recommended that adolescents aged 12 to 17 with compromised immune systems also get a third shot.
As a convoy of truckers and other anti-vaccine-mandate protesters makes its way to Ottawa for a demonstration, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the federal government is holding firm to its vaccine requirements for cross-border workers like drivers because the shots are the only way out of the pandemic.
“The threat is not vaccination. The threat is COVID. If there’s one tool that we should use to the utmost, it is vaccinations,” Duclos said.
“The Omicron variant has shown a certain resistance to vaccines but vaccine effectiveness, especially the booster dose, has shown over the past weeks that it will help us get through the crisis we’re currently experiencing.”
While Omicron cases are subsiding, Tam warned of a new “sublineage” of that variant called BA.2 that has been detected in Canada. Over 100 cases of BA.2 have been identified so far.
Tam said it’s too early to say what impact this subvariant could have on Canada’s fight against COVID-19. She said BA.2 could prove to be more transmissible but it “doesn’t seem to lead to any specific increase in hospitalizations or severe outcomes.”
Denmark is reporting a surge in BA.2 infections; the subvariant accounted for nearly half of all Omicron cases in Denmark during the second week of January, up from roughly 20 per cent at the end of 2021. There’s a chance that sort of spike could happen here, Tam said.
“Getting to the peak is one thing but coming down the other side of the wave could still mean a lot of people could be infected, including with BA.2,” Tam said.
As some provinces prepare to relax public health restrictions — Ontario will allow gyms, movie theatres and restaurants to reopen next week at 50 per cent capacity, for example — Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, urged caution.
“That must be done very prudently in all provinces and territories to keep infection rates down and to make sure hospitalizations are also kept as low as possible,” he said.
“But we are optimistic and there is reason for hope. If the epidemiology allows then, yes, measures can be relaxed as long as trends are showing a downward slope.”