Current COVID-19 wave may be cresting, says N.L.'s head pandemic researcher
'We need to look forward and be careful in terms of what happens over the next week,' says Dr. Proton Rahman
The current COVID-19 wave washing over Newfoundland and Labrador may be at its crest, says the provincial researcher in charge of pandemic data.
Dr. Proton Rahman, who heads the analytics team responsible for following COVID-19 data in Newfoundland and Labrador, said the data available suggests the province has reached the peak.
"If we continue to do what we're actually doing, we're actually predicting that the numbers will actually start to fall," Rahman told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Friday.
"The reason for this is twofold. The province has an aggressive plan in terms of giving the booster doses, which will decrease the transmission going forward, and people, for the most part, are actually abiding by the public health measures."
But there's still a lot of unknown data.
Rahman said projection modelling can no longer rely solely on known positive cases, given how quickly the Omicron variant spreads and how infections are outpacing testing.
He said the case positivity rate — the percentage of positive infections in a batch of tests — random sampling and waste-water testing are important indicators moving forward.
"That can give us an idea in terms of the burden of COVID-19 that's out there," he said, adding that hospitalizations will be the best indicator of the burden of COVID-19 in the province.
Rahman said the Omicron variant is resulting in about 83 per cent fewer hospitalizations than the Delta variant.
But with more than 4,000 known positive cases in the province as of Thursday — and with around 500 new cases a day for several days now — the health-care system is stretched thin with some workers in isolation and others being reassigned to testing and booster clinics.
Rahman said the spike in cases happened mostly over the past week so it's too early to say hospitalizations won't increase. As of Thursday, there were four people in hospital due to COVID-19.
"We need to look forward and be careful in terms of what happens over the next week," he said.
"To try to get a better assessment of how high the peak may be, we're looking at provinces that are a little bit ahead of us, that have more COVID-19 in their province. So [we're] carefully studying Ontario, Quebec and also provinces that are demographically similar to us, such as Nova Scotia."
There's also still worry about the variant finding its way into older citizens. There have been recent cases inside long-term care homes in the province.
Rahman said those residents, even with two doses of vaccine, are much more likely to end up in the hospital.
"I think the boosters help a fair bit, but we still have to be careful of not getting too much infection in terms of long-term care homes," he said.
N.L. could face large jump in severe outcomes if spread continues: U of T prof
In a provincial COVID-19 briefing earlier this week, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the wide spread of Omicron means most people in the province will acquire the virus in the coming weeks and months.
"The reality of this virus is that it's so infectious, most people will acquire it, but our health-care system can't stand the pressure of everyone acquiring it at the same time," she said Monday.
Research from the University of Toronto has estimated what health outcomes could look like if 90 per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador's population were to get COVID-19 — estimating the province could see more than 1,000 deaths and more than 4,700 hospitalizations if the spread of Omicron continues over weeks and months.
The data was compiled by U of T Prof. Tara Moriarty, who says the models and estimates come from constantly changing data around different provinces' percentage of fully vaccinated people, vaccination protection against severe health outcomes like deaths and hospitalizations and the percentage of unvaccinated people in a province.
"We do know that a certain percentage of people who are vaccinated are still going to get sick, and some of them are going to get severely ill," Moriarty said Friday.
"If 90 per cent of us are infected, these numbers show how many both vaccinated and unvaccinated people would end up needing health care and potentially dying."
Assuming 90 per cent of Newfoundland and Labrador's population gets infected with COVID-19 at around the same time, the data suggests the province could see an additional 1,078 deaths and 4,741 hospitalizations, 741 of which would involve an intensive-care unit.
A total of 446 of those deaths would be what Moriarty calls "vaccine preventable": occurring in the unvaccinated population. The other 631 deaths would be future breakthrough deaths, meaning deaths in people who are fully vaccinated. Since more than 92 per cent of people in Newfoundland and Labrador age 12 and up are fully vaccinated, the data indicates a much higher risk of death for the much smaller proportion of the province who are unvaccinated.
Moriarty says that while the numbers might seem startling when compared with the province's current situation, that's because of the province's success so far in controlling infection and limiting spread.
"Newfoundland and Labrador has done such a phenomenal job of controlling spread and preventing infection so far, that a very tiny percentage of the population has probably ever been infected," she said, with just over one per cent of the provincial population having been infected so far. "If you go to 90 per cent of the population infected, you will scale that up and see 90 times more."
Moriarty added a COVID-19 booster vaccine has shown promising results in limiting severe outcomes.
"Even if you can reduce the percentage of people who get infected from 90 to 80 per cent, that can have enormous outcomes in terms of preventing hospitalizations and deaths," she said.
Appointments and services on hold
Meanwhile, Eastern Health plans to keep outpatient laboratory services on hold next week. All non-urgent appointments have been cancelled, while urgent or emergent laboratory testing and services will continue. Outpatient blood collection sites are restricted to urgent blood collection only.
In Whitbourne, the emergency department at the Dr. William H. Newhook Community Health Centre will be diverting patients starting Friday due to staffing changes related to the pandemic, Eastern Health said. Patients in the area who require emergency services are being asked to go to the nearest open emergency department in Carbonear, Placentia or St. John's, or call 911 for assistance.
Family practice clinics, outpatient laboratory services and ambulatory treatment services such as chemotherapy continue to be available by appointment.
In Corner Brook, walk-in COVID-19 testing is resuming at the Corner Brook Civic Centre Studio between 8:45 a.m. and 4 p.m.
With files from The St. John's Morning Show