N.L. health officials expect COVID-19 hospitalizations to spike in coming weeks

Health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador expect the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations to spike in the coming weeks, topping last fall's peak of 16 people.

Dr. Proton Rahman says the province could see 20-30 people in hospital

Dr. Proton Rahman is head of the Newfoundland and Labrador's pandemic data analysis group. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador expect the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations to spike in the coming weeks, topping last fall's peak of 16 people.

Dr. Proton Rahman, head of the province's pandemic data analysis group, shared on Wednesday the province's forecasting data, which suggests the province could see a peak of 20 to 30 people in hospital as the Omicron variant continues to spread.

As of Wednesday, seven people in Newfoundland and Labrador are in hospital as a result of COVID-19. Three of them are in intensive care, according to Health Minister John Haggie.

Rahman said the number of anticipated hospitalizations comes from using data from other provinces with similar cases along with the province's own data, which suggests hospitalizations usually begin to increase eight to 10 days after the beginning of a new wave of COVID.

"Next week is going to be key, because there are a lot of active patients, some of which may come into hospital, so we're really interested in seeing the projection forward," he said.

But the province's current hospitalization rate is lower than expected, said Rahman, likely due to the province having some of the highest vaccination rates in Canada. People over the age of 50, who he said have the highest risk of hospitalization, are largely avoiding severe illness because they're mostly fully vaccinated, he said.

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Almost 93 per cent of the eligible population in Newfoundland and Labrador is considered fully vaccinated, while about 96 per cent have received at least one dose — including over 70 per cent of people ages five to 11.

The province also reported 731 new cases on Wednesday, including 229 in a backlog of tests that were sent out of province for confirmation.

By region, there are 517 new cases in the Eastern Health region, 85 in the Labrador-Grenfell region, 64 in the Western Health region, 44 in the Central Health region and 21 found outside of a regional testing clinic.

Since Tuesday, there have been 498 recoveries — a new single-day record for the province, topping Tuesday's 494 — leaving 6,443 known active cases.

Just over 4,300 COVID-19 tests have been completed in the past 24 hours, according to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, raising the number of completed tests to 443,284. Rahman said national data indicates the province ranks among the highest in the country in per capita testing.

Haggie also alerted the public to a phone scam in which someone posing as a public health official asks for personal information to release COVID-19 test results. Public Health no longer shares test results over the phone, and anyone who encounters a call like this should contact law enforcement, he said.

Watch the full briefing here:

Although daily case numbers are still in the hundreds per day, Rahman said it's promising that they appear to have plateaued at around 400 to 600 per day, suggesting the wave may be peaking. He also said people shouldn't focus on a single day of exponentially higher case numbers as a sign of bad things to come, because fluctuations in case counts are to be expected.

Rahman said the province's newer data presents the opportunity for more realistic modelling, since past predictions were based on "what-if scenarios," as the province's low case numbers in earlier stages of the pandemic made forecasting tricky.

"The numbers will be closer, but there's still limitations in terms of predictions. It's better to overestimate … than underestimate and get cut short, but hopefully we don't see as many cases as we predict," he said.

Fitzgerald said that although it can be frustrating or overwhelming for people to continue to have to deal with new cases of the virus, people have the power to protect themselves and those around them.

"When a snowstorm approaches, we adapt. We drive slower, we put on more layers to protect us from the elements. We need to think of living with COVID-19 in somewhat the same way," she said.

"There will be times where we need to be extra-careful and apply more layers."

4th dose available for immunocompromised people

Fitzgerald said the province will shift its vaccination strategy to fit new advice from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, offering immunocompromised people in the province a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Appointments can be booked now, Fitzgerald said, as long as the vaccination is done at least 22 weeks after a person's third dose — the same time period between a second dose and a booster shot.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Wednesday the province will offer a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine to immunocompromised people. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The chief medical officer of health added the province intends to reassess the modified version of Alert Level 4 on Monday, which the province has been in since Jan. 4.

Health-care workers feeling the strain: nurses' union

With COVID-19 cases climbing across Newfoundland and Labrador, the head of the province's largest nurses' union says the health-care system is strained, with staff facing exhaustion and their own bouts with the highly contagious Omicron variant. 

Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses' Union Newfoundland and Labrador, says registered nurses and nurse practitioners find it difficult to take a day off work, with some having scheduled days off cancelled and no leave requests allowed. 

"This creates major stress on our members, and their families and their loved ones," Coffey told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning on Wednesday. "It's just one thing after the other, and our members are so frustrated at this point in time because they're not seeing an end in sight."

Testing sites across Newfoundland and Labrador have been busy as the Omicron wave surges. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Since the beginning of the new year, hundreds of health-care workers have been unable to work at any given time because of their own challenges with the Omicron wave. 

Coffey said more than 1,200 health-care workers in the province are in isolation, either because they're infected or were a close contact of somebody who is infected with COVID-19. 

She said there's no easy fix to the staffing shortage, and said concerns were raised well before the pandemic. Coffey said there are 500 job vacancies for nursing positions in the province and about 900 nurses are eligible to retire within the next year or so. 

If hospitalizations do rise in the way Rahman expects, Haggie said, the province is ready to respond.

"The beds are there. By my calculation there are roughly 300 empty beds across the regional health authorities.… At the moment, we think we're on the right side of this, but obviously it's something we monitor on a regular basis," he said.

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With files from Newfoundland Morning