Omicron variant caseload expected to 'rapidly escalate' in the coming days, Tam says
Canadians need to get booster shots, limit contacts to prevent uncontrollable spike in cases, top doctor says
Canada's chief public health officer said today there is evidence of community spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant and new COVID-19 cases are expected to "rapidly escalate" in the coming days.
Dr. Theresa Tam said there is "great spread potential" with omicron and the situation in Canada is a "few days or maybe a week" behind the U.K. — where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson today said that the country is dealing with a "tidal wave" of new infections, with the caseload doubling every two or three days as the variant takes hold.
"We know how to work together to flatten that curve and we need to do that pretty rapidly, starting now," Tam said. "As with other waves of the pandemic, rapid action and reducing contact [are] key to preventing that very sharp peak."
In Ontario, COVID-19 cases have doubled in two weeks' time, with 1,328 new cases reported today. Some communities — notably Kingston, Ont. — have seen conditions rapidly deteriorate with hundreds of new cases posted over the weekend, pushing case counts to the highest level seen since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
'We are seeing community transmission'
The Ontario COVID-19 science advisory table said today the omicron variant will replace the currently dominant delta variant as the main strain in the province by Christmas — something Tam said she expects to see happen elsewhere in the country by year's end. Early data suggest omicron is three times more transmissible than delta.
"What we're seeing in Ontario, I expect to be seen in other areas of the country," Tam told a press conference. "We are seeing community transmission, possibly in its early stages, but this can rapidly escalate in the days to come."
While Canada could soon be facing the largest wave of COVID-19 cases ever recorded during this health crisis, one big unknown is just how virulent the omicron variant is compared to past variants like alpha or delta.
WATCH: Tam says there is community transmission of the omicron variant in Canada
The U.K. has reported a stunning 54,661 coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours, but only 10 people with the omicron variant have so far been hospitalized in England.
While researchers scramble to determine the severity of this variant, Tam said provinces must urgently roll out booster shots to protect older and vulnerable Canadians.
She said there's evidence of "waning immunity" from COVID-19 infections and vaccines — and quickly administering a third shot to as many people as possible can help blunt the spread.
Tam also said it will take time for the booster shots to kick in — so Canadians should closely follow public health guidelines and "layer on protections" such as medical-grade masks until more people are covered with a third shot.
"We've achieved high vaccination coverage compared to other countries and here we are again asking people to roll up their sleeves for those booster shots — especially for the higher risk populations. That's what we need to focus on," Tam said.
"But you need both vaccines and reduced contact rates right to dampen the effect of this virus," she said.
Tam said that last recommendation — staying away from other people — will help protect Canada's hospitals from being inundated with patients.
"I think we've learned over time, if we don't act fast then you begin to lose the ability to manage things," she said.
Tam's omicron warnings come on the same day she released her annual report. In that document, Tam says the public health system is "stretched dangerously thin" after two years of the COVID-19 crisis and a parallel opioid epidemic.
To address some of the system's shortcomings, Tam said governments have to earmark more money for public health to bring an end to what she calls the "boom and bust" cycle — a funding pattern where money flows during a time of crisis only to be clawed back when the situation stabilizes. Tam said money should be dedicated to recruiting and retaining health care workers, who have faced challenging working conditions during this pandemic.
Tam's annual report also lays bare just how damaging the COVID-19 crisis has been for other areas of public health. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the lives of Canadians suffering from mental illness, opioid addiction and other substance abuse problems.
Tam's report says there were 7,150 more deaths than expected in people under the age of 65 between March 2020 and May 2021. COVID-19-related deaths accounted for 1,600 of those deaths, while the worsening opioid overdose crisis also likely caused a significant number of these excess deaths, Tam said.
Social isolation, a more toxic drug supply and physical distancing measures at safe-consumption sites, among other factors, have made the opioid crisis more deadly, the report found. The number of opioid-related deaths in 2020 (6,214) far exceeded the number of deaths in 2018 (4,389), the previous peak of the crisis.
Canada is also grappling with mental health concerns, with 42 per cent of people reporting their perceived mental health is "somewhat worse" or "much worse" than it was before the pandemic, according to the Canada Community Health Survey.
Although individuals aged 12 to 17 years were among the age groups least likely to report feelings of worsening mental health, the share of this demographic reporting perceptions of poorer mental health has doubled since September 2020.
Kids Help Phone, an e-mental health service offering free confidential support to young Canadians, reported that the number of calls, texts and clicks on their online resources more than doubled in 2020 over 2019.
And because many jurisdictions have postponed elective and other surgeries, Tam's report suggests there will be a "future surge of cancer cases" once surgeries resume after COVID-19-related interruptions.