Reduce contacts now or hospitals will be overwhelmed by Omicron, says Tam

Dr. Theresa Tam is warning that even if the Omicron variant causes less severe illness, it's still more transmissible, and even a small proportion of people winding up in hospital because of it can overwhelm the health-care system.

Canada's top doctor says employers must provide the best masks and ventilation possible

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference on Jan. 12 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's chief public health officer says this will not be the holiday season Canadians were hoping for, warning people that if they don't reduce their contacts over the next several weeks, the country's hospitals will be overwhelmed. 

Dr. Theresa Tam told The National's Andrew Chang on Monday that now is not the time to be gathering in big numbers.

"Even if Omicron happens to be milder than the previous virus variants, because it's spreading so rapidly ... even a small proportion of people winding up in hospital is going to overwhelm our systems."

Canada reported more than 14,000 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, though some of the cases were from the weekend, with cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant soaring and quickly overtaking Delta in many jurisdictions. 

WATCH | Reducing contacts is important right now, Tam says: 

Reduce contacts over the holidays, says Canada's top doctor

2 years ago
Duration 1:08
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, says the only way to prevent huge numbers of patients from winding up in hospital with COVID-19 in the coming weeks is to reduce gatherings over the holidays. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While some provinces have already moved to reduce capacity limits in indoor spaces, Tam believes more restrictions may be necessary.

"Putting on the brakes, as we all know, quickly can allow us to resume activities at the other end faster," she said.

WATCH | Tam says more restrictions now would be prudent: 

More restrictions sooner work best, says Tam

2 years ago
Duration 1:21
Dr. Theresa Tam on Monday told The National that putting the brakes on early is what allows COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted sooner at the other end. (Paul Jones/CBC)

In its early days, Omicron appeared to be affecting mostly younger people. But Tam says, as it spreads, it is going to affect more and more workers and workplaces and so it is crucial that workplaces give their employees the most effective protection possible: "The best masks possible that you can get your hands on, making sure ventilation is improved in those workplaces, and making sure they get access to vaccines." 

WATCH | Workers need best protection possible, says chief public health officer:

Workers need best protection possible: chief public health officer

2 years ago
Duration 0:50
Employers need to make sure workers have the best possible masks, improved ventilation at work and access to COVID-19 vaccines, said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Finally, Tam said it is time to ditch the cloth masks. They are not going to protect you against Omicron.

"You cannot have a single-layered cloth mask," she said. "The medical masks are better at filtering viruses." But even the three-ply surgical type might not be enough, she added, saying N95-type respirators are a better fit for people's faces. 

WATCH | Wearing a properly fitted mask over the nose is crucial:

No more cloth masks, says Tam

2 years ago
Duration 0:43
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says people need to be wearing three-ply surgical masks at the very least, and N95-type respirators if possible. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Tam reiterated again today that every pandemic ends and that this one, too, will run its course. But she said it will be a number of months at least, and that helping other countries get vaccinated and get their spread of cases under control will be the key to reaching that point.