Omicron hospitalization rate still low in Ontario as top doctor warns of higher COVID surge

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health says the province is experiencing “exponential” growth when it comes to the COVID-19 Omicron variant but that hospitalization rates remain stable ahead of expected holiday gatherings.

Dr. Kieran Moore says as of Tuesday, Omicron’s hospitalization admission rate in Ontario is around 0.15 per cent. None of the 165 patients currently in ICUs across the province are believed to be infected with the variant. That mark is significantly lower than the province’s general COVID-19 hospitalization rate.

Moore cautions that doesn’t mean it won’t change, though, since the tally is of a particularly younger population than the province as a whole, mainly in the 20-30 range — an age demographic doctors say is at lower risk of experiencing severe symptoms of the virus.

Despite the relatively positive outlook on how the variant is currently impacting the health care system, Moore says Omicron’s rise affects the province’s ability to provide the needed testing capacity.

“Increasing demand is making it more challenging to access timely testing, and individuals seeking test appointments may experience longer wait times in certain parts of the province,” he told reporters at Queen’s Park.

The top doctor says he believes Ontario will soon see the highest number of COVID-19 cases per day since the beginning of the pandemic — in line with recent modelling projections.

“Hospitalizations have increased by nine per cent in the past week, and while the ICU occupancy remains stable, we anticipate in the coming days and weeks, we will start to see a greater impact of Omicron on hospitalizations and our intensive care units,” Moore added.

“I know everyone is tired. Especially our hard-working health care workers in the public health and primary care sector and our pharmacy partners.

“You have been all asked to sacrifice over the last 20 months, but Omicron is not taking a holiday.”

There were 165 people in intensive care due to COVID-19 on Tuesday, including 101 patients on ventilators. Forecasts from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table predict cases will keep rising over the next month with a spike in hospitalizations to follow.

ontario science table
A professional group representing medical laboratory professionals warned last week that labs are under “extreme pressure” from the ongoing case spike and would likely be unable to keep up with the projected explosive growth.

An earlier wave of infections fueled by the Delta variant has been largely overtaken by Omicron, which is considered far more infectious — even for vaccinated people with two COVID-19 shots. The science table’s estimates have the Omicron variant at 91.4 per cent of cases, with an R(t) — (Effective Reproduction Number) — of 3.16. That indicates each patient infects more than others on average.

Vaccines in the U.S. and worldwide do not offer as much protection against Omicron as they have against previous versions of the coronavirus. However, experts say vaccines still help and make a difference. They say lab tests show that while two doses may not be strong enough to prevent infection, a booster shot of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine produces antibodies capable of tackling Omicron.

Much about the Omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Early studies suggest those vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing Omicron infection, but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against critical illness and death.

On Tuesday, the province reported 3,453 new COVID-19 cases and 11 virus deaths as some hospitals said they were suspending non-essential services to brace for the impact of rising infections.

Premier Doug Ford was among the Ontarians who received the third shot on Tuesday. He shared a photo from the Toronto pharmacy on social media where he received his booster.

“It is critical that every Ontarian is protected from Omicron,” he says.

“If you are eligible for your vaccine and booster, please sign up today.”

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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