Record high number of Ontarians in hospital with COVID-19 as Omicron wave continues

Ontario reported a pandemic high of 2,472 people with COVID-19 in hospital on Friday, as the number of admissions to intensive care also increased again. The previous high of 2,360 hospitalizations came on April 20, 2021, during the height of the height of the third wave.

Previous high of 2,360 hospitalizations came on April 20, 2021, during the height of the 3rd wave

Overall hospitalizations of Ontarians with COVID-19 has increased 116 per cent in the last week, according to Ministry of Health data. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario reported a pandemic high of 2,472 people with COVID-19 in hospital on Friday, as the number of admissions to intensive care increased again.

The previous high of 2,360 hospitalizations came on April 20, 2021, during the height of the third wave.

Friday's hospitalization figure is up from 2,279 yesterday and 1,144 at the same time last week — a 116 per cent jump.

There are also 338 patients with COVID-19 in ICUs, up from 205 last Friday. According to Critical Care Services Ontario, 57 more adults with the illness were admitted to intensive care on Thursday.

The province has said it will soon begin publishing data that differentiates between patients admitted to hospital due to COVID-19, and those who test positive for the virus while in hospital for unrelated reasons. The Ministry of Health told CBC News late Wednesday that data collection from hospitals for this initiative began last week and that the public reporting will "likely start in the near future."

The Ministry of Health also reported this morning the deaths of 42 more people with COVID-19. In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said that the 42 deaths occurred "over the span of 10 days" and were included in today's figures due a data catch-up by the province. 

Alexandra Hilkene added that "due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant," the ministry is re-evaluating whether its daily reports should distinguish between people who died because of COVID-19 and those who likely died of other factors but were infected with the virus at the time.

"For example, we have heard anecdotal evidence of a small number of individuals receiving palliative care in congregate care settings who regrettably passed with COVID but not necessarily because of the virus," Hilkene said.

"While any change in reporting will not change the fact that these individuals tragically lost their lives, it is important to be transparent and provide the public with as much context as we can."

Supports for small businesses closed by restrictions

The government said Friday it will offer $10,000 grants to small businesses forced to close due to public health measures recently introduced to curb the spread of the Omicron variant.

Eligible businesses include gyms, museums and galleries, tour services and before- and after-school programs.

But businesses that had to slash their capacity in half do not qualify.

The province says eligible businesses that qualified for the Ontario Small Business Support Grant and that have been forced to close will be pre-screened for the new grant, and need not apply.

It says qualifying small businesses can expect to receive their payment in February — a timeline NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says is too slow.

The province is also introducing a hydro relief program for businesses and residential customers, providing the off-peak rate 24 hours a day for 21 days, starting on Jan. 18.

10th straight day of positivity rates over 25%

The province also logged at least 11,899 new cases of COVID-19 this morning. However, as Ontario recently changed its guidelines to significantly limit who qualifies for a PCR test, official case totals are now said to be a drastic undercount of the actual number of cases in the province.

Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table estimates only one in five cases are currently being confirmed by the province's testing regime.

For the 61,137 tests that were completed, Public Health Ontario reported a positivity rate of 26.6 per cent. It is the 10th straight day positivity rates have been higher than 25 per cent.

More than 100,000 more test samples are in the backlog waiting to be completed.

Pressure on hospitals continues to intensify

The pressure on Ontario's hospitals is expected to worsen in the coming weeks as more staff are forced off the job due to COVID-19 and admissions due to the virus climb, the head of the province's hospital association said, calling it a dire situation.

Though the 338 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units pales in comparison to the peak during the third wave of the pandemic, when 900 people with the virus were in ICU, that doesn't mean health-care workers are breathing any easier, said Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association.

"We still have very, very sick people. We still have a very large number of people being admitted to intensive care," Dale said. "I don't know where the ceiling will be."

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Health-care workers are burnt-out and getting sick in numbers never experienced before, says Dr. Tasleem Nimjee of Humber River Hospital in Toronto. She says the current crisis due to COVID-19 is hurting everyone in society.

As of Dec. 31, when 1,144 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, Ontario Health said overall acute bed capacity — which includes ICU beds — was 20,000, and 18,000 were occupied, including just over 2,000 in intensive care.

With COVID-19 case counts continuing to mount — rising so quickly that charted on a graph, it looks like a vertical line, Dale said — it stands to reason that hospitalization rates will do the same.

Numerous hospitals face COVID-19-related absences

The situation inside hospitals is compounded by the rising number of doctors, nurses and other staff who have to isolate because they've contracted the virus or been exposed to it.

Dale said his organization doesn't keep track of the number of staff off from work, but numerous hospitals are reporting massive absences due to COVID-19 diagnoses and some have started making tough decisions to accommodate.

Niagara Health, for instance, paused its staff vaccination requirement "given the intensity of the fifth wave and the urgent need to focus on our response."

"When our mandatory COVID-19 vaccination program was put in place in October 2021, the Omicron variant was not anticipated," the regional health-care provider said in a statement.

"Those who are unvaccinated will continue to be required to participate in regular antigen testing, and our Occupational Health and Safety team is working with them directly."

The same group announced it was temporarily closing one of its urgent care centres so it could redeploy staff to emergency rooms.

In Kitchener, meanwhile, Grand River Hospital said 200 of its 4,300 staff members were isolating after either testing positive for COVID-19 or being exposed to someone who did.

"Staffing in some units is a challenge that is being mitigated daily," hospital spokeswoman Cheryl Evans said in an email.

"We've limited surgeries to accommodate only urgent, emergent and cancer cases until January 15 and are reviewing staffing across the hospital continually, to be able to redeploy staff and other resources to support the provision of urgent and inpatient care for our community where it is needed."

Evans said the hospital is also turning to virtual care where possible.

With files from The Canadian Press