Modelling predicts Alberta could see 6,000 new COVID-19 cases daily within weeks

A new report from the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group suggests that cases of Omicron will explode over the coming four weeks, stunting previous waves of COVID-19 and pushing Alberta hospitals past the breaking point.

'You reach 6,000 cases a day before the first of January and it doesn't stop'

As cases of Omicron's rapid rise, Alberta has expanded rapid testing and third-dose vaccines while introducing new restrictions. New modelling suggests spread will escalate in the coming weeks. (Submitted by AHS)

Cases of Omicron will rapidly escalate in Alberta in the coming weeks, with daily case counts of COVID-19 expected to surpass 6,000 by the end of the year, new modelling suggests. 

A new report from the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group suggests that cases of Omicron will explode over the coming four weeks across Canada, stunting previous waves of the pandemic.

As a result, Alberta's hospitals could be pushed past the breaking point, said Dean Karlen, a University of Victoria physics professor and member of the independent modelling group.

"You reach 6,000 cases a day before the first of January and it doesn't stop," said Karlen.

The highest daily case count for COVID-19 in Alberta was 2,389, recorded on April 30 during the peak of the third wave.

The projections assume no change in social behaviour in the coming four weeks. The status-quo scenario "demonstrates it is essential to reduce transmission rates immediately," the report says. 

Hospitals deluged within 4 weeks

Karlen's models show hospital capacity could be overcome within four weeks, with thousands of COVID-19 patients seeking care. 

This "wall" of new infections will leave the province struggling to accurately track case counts, Karlen said.

"The growth is so rapid it almost looks like a vertical line," Karlen said. "This is the nature of rapid, exponential growth." 

The new modelling, published Tuesday before new restrictions were announced in Alberta, details the impact of an Omicron-driven fifth wave, and warns that a rapid rise in the new variant will pose a serious challenge to health care in jurisdictions across the country, even if the strain proves less severe than other coronavirus mutations. 

The modelling is not intended to provide conclusive, daily projections but rather a snapshot of how serious the situation may become, Karlen said.

"Even with these reductions in severity, hospital demands will soon exceed previous record highs, and will continue to rise into the new year," the report says. 

The plots show daily values as small points, and weekly averages as larger circles. Solid curves show the model expectations. (Dean Karlen)

During a Tuesday news conference, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said the province's own modelling is limited by a lack of information on the severity of the Omicron strain.

That said, Omicron's severity would have to be drastically reduced in order to avoid a "significant impact" on the acute care system, Hinshaw said.

"Now is the time to take this seriously," she said. 

"Models give us a sense of the possible future, and I would say that we should be very concerned about the future with Omicron."

Models give us a sense of the possible future, and I would say that we should be very concerned about the future with Omicron.- Dr. Deena Hinshaw

The variant has rapidly gained a foothold in the province.

First detected on Nov. 30, it is now considered the dominant strain with a total of 1,609 cases detected as of Tuesday.

According to the B.C. modelling, the growth rate for new cases in Alberta is expected to be 29 per cent per day — for example, 700 COVID-19 cases increasing to 900 within 24 hours. 

Generally, case numbers are used to define the infection models. Due to Alberta's decision to eliminate nearly all contact tracing, Karlen said case counts were no longer a reliable indicator and daily hospital admission data was used instead.

In this graph, scenario A is the most optimistic in terms of Omicron's severity while scenario C is based on worst-expected outcomes. Under scenario C, hospital occupancy is expected to surpass 4,000 patients within four weeks. (Dean Karlen)

The projections based on higher-severity scenarios indicate that in the first week of 2022, hospital demand could be four times larger than the peak of the Delta wave, and would continue to increase. 

"You would have 4,000 people in hospital with COVID, if there was capacity to have that many," Karlen said. 

"It appears that this could happen as soon as before the end of this year, such is the just remarkable rise of Omicron that we're seeing." 

A lower-severity scenario delays reaching these levels by about a week.

Invisible impact

As demands for testing and care escalate, it will be increasingly difficult for Alberta to keep track, Karlen said. While Alberta could reach 6,000 cases per day, those numbers may not be reflected in the government reporting because testing may fall short. 

The modelling is based on a scenario where testing and contact tracing is unlimited.

"It's going to be difficult, going forward, to really understand what's happening with the pandemic," he said.

"We're getting into this wall where we won't be able to see the wall, with the exception of hospital admissions." 

During Tuesday's update, Premier Jason Kenney said more accurate data on the impact of Omicron will be available from other countries in the weeks ahead but the need to protect the health-care system is urgent. 

"There are still many unknowns about this, and we should continue to very closely study the emerging data around the world," Kenney said.



Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.