British Columbia

B.C. hitting 'peak' of COVID-19 hospitalizations, officials say

British Columbia health officials say the province appears to have reached peak numbers of patients in hospital with COVID-19, as a review of recent cases shows the risk of hospitalization has been cut in half during the Omicron wave.

Latest numbers show Omicron variant carries 50% reduced risk of ending up in hospital compared to Delta

The number of patients in hospital in B.C. with COVID-19 surpassed 1,000 this week for the first time, but health officials say hospitalizations seem to have peaked. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

British Columbia health officials say the province appears to have reached peak numbers of patients in hospital with COVID-19, as a review of recent cases shows the risk of hospitalization has been cut in half during the Omicron wave.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presented new numbers at a news conference on Tuesday, saying that while the highly transmissible Omicron variant has caused hospitalizations to soar above record levels, the data confirms it's causing less serious illness than the previously dominant Delta variant.

"It does look like we are at our peak of hospitalizations," Henry said.

In the last week, 706 people have been admitted to hospital with COVID-19. The vast majority of those patients — more than 90 per cent — have been infected with the Omicron variant.

"Our hospitals are coping even though we're stretched," Henry said.

Hospitalized patients are now dying at about half the rate they were during the Delta wave, she said. People over the age of 80 still face the highest risk of death from COVID-19.

The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 in B.C. surpassed 1,000 for the first time on Monday.

Experts say hospitalizations are a more accurate barometer of the disease's impact, as new case numbers in B.C. are likely much higher than reported, now that the province has hit its testing limit because of the Omicron surge.

Earlier this month, B.C. changed its reporting strategy on hospitalizations. The numbers provided by the province now include people admitted because of COVID-19, as well as those who tested positive for the novel coronavirus after being admitted for other reasons.

A review of 550 hospital charts for patients admitted after Dec. 1 showed that about 60 per cent of people with Omicron had been admitted for other reasons, according to the numbers presented Tuesday.

Unvaccinated patients are making up a smaller proportion of those in hospital with Omicron compared to Delta, but Henry said that's largely because of the change in reporting strategy. Nearly three quarters of hospitalized patients with at least one shot of a vaccine only tested positive after being admitted for other reasons, according to numbers from the chart review.


Change in visitor restrictions for long-term care

During Tuesday's news  conference, Henry announced that visitor restrictions are set to be updated to allow up to two visitors at a time for all residents. Visitors must be vaccinated and wear personal protective equipment, she added.

"Full closures lead to social isolation," Henry said.

She added that other restrictions will likely be eased in the coming weeks, but warned "It will not be a flick of the switch."

Henry also addressed Pfizer's newly approved COVID-19 pill Paxlovid, saying that B.C. will prioritize use of its approximately 4,000 courses of the oral antiviral drug for those who are considered to be clinically extremely vulnerable.

The treatment must be administered within five days of the onset of symptoms.

In light of recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, Henry also said third doses of vaccine will be offered to clinically extremely vulnerable people between the ages of 12 and 17 as part of the initial immunization program. For everyone else in that age group, booster invitations will go out six months after the second dose.

Rapid tests coming for schools

The province announced later Tuesday afternoon that another 300,000 rapid antigen test kits are on their way to B.C. schools, with the first phase set to arrive in rural and remote locations for students with COVID-19 symptoms.

The second phase will see rapid tests distributed to schools in the Interior and Northern health authorities, for students between the ages of five and 11.

Meanwhile, youth sports tournaments were able to resume Tuesday in B.C. after a month-long hiatus due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

Tournaments had been cancelled since Dec. 21, as part of a wider set of public health restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the highly-transmissible variant.

While play is permitted once again. the relaxation of the restriction does not apply to school-based tournaments.

Henry announced that youth sports would be allowed to go ahead at a news conference on Jan. 25.

With files from Jon Azpiri