Hospitals in several parts of Canada are straining under the weight of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, with Quebec hospitalizations reaching an all-time high on Sunday and Ontario’s admissions to intensive care units surging past the 400 mark.
New Brunswick’s hospitals also hovered near their highest levels since the pandemic began, with 79 people in hospital, one in five of whom are in intensive care.
Dr. Bob Bell, former CEO of the University Health Network and Ontario deputy health minister from 2014 to 2018, said Canada is in good company when it comes to seeing its health-care system tested by COVID-19.
Every Western country dealing with Omicron has a stressed hospital system right now, he said, but Canada has a lower tolerance for fatalities than places like the United States so will pursue lockdowns and restrictions sooner.
“We’re being prudent, as Canadians usually are,” he said in an interview.
Quebec hospital admissions leapt by 140 on Sunday to 2,436, and the added pressure has prompted several hospitals across the province to delay surgeries and medical appointments.
Ontario reported 2,419 patients hospitalized due to the virus on Sunday, down from Saturday’s count of nearly 2,600 — though the province notes not all facilities share data over the weekend.
Some regions, such as British Columbia, do not report cases or hospitalizations on the weekend.
Relative to its peer countries, Bell said Canada has a “solid” health-care system when it comes to quality of care. It also adapted to the pandemic by adding critical care beds, ventilators and moving surgeries.
Where it tends to lag when compared internationally is access to primary care, he said, which is day-to-day health care.
Bell warned that stressed hospitals can be a symptom of inadequate “upstream” care like access to family doctors, home care and community care. When those services aren’t available, people show up in emergency departments for help, he said.
“The hospital is the canary in the coal mine in many ways for health system challenges,” he said.
In a November 2021 report called “A Struggling System,” the Canadian Medical Association said the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the health of Canadians that is broader than the effects of contracting the virus itself.
Among its findings, there was a 68 to 94 per cent decrease in in-person visits for chronic disease care visits in April 2020 compared with April 2019, and cancer screening remained 20 to 35 per cent below pre-pandemic levels as of January 2021.
“The backlog in hospital procedures is growing, and numerous forms of care have been delayed, cancelled or otherwise affected,” the report said.
“The demand for extra capacity poses a significant risk to the sustainability of the health care system at a time when health care workers are burned out, exhausted and demoralized, and the pressures on the system are being exacerbated by the increasing shortage of health human resources.”
While the wave of Omicron infections continues, public health officials are working to reduce the impact to places like the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
In order to protect the essential workforce conducting critical on-site diagnostic and lab research, all personnel who can work remotely have been asked to do so starting Monday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement Sunday.
Dr. Mike Haddad, Chief of Staff at Bluewater Health in Sarnia, Ont., said his hospital is currently seeing higher levels of COVID-19 admissions than at the peak of the first wave in April 2020.
Haddad said that while his staff has remained in high spirits, they’re exhausted by Omicron’s incessant spread. Roughly five per cent of them are currently isolating after an infection or high-risk exposure.
Staffing shortages, which many hospitals are reporting, can have trickle-down effects that alter the flow of other health-care services, including paramedics, he said.
A full emergency department means paramedics can’t offload patients quickly, and can’t be deployed to the next call.
“It’s all connected,” Haddad said, adding that while he hasn’t seen that happening yet in Sarnia, it is already unfolding in other regions of the province.
Epidemiologist and cardiologist Dr. Christopher Labos warned against interpreting the high case counts and hospital admissions as evidence that vaccination is ineffective, noting he’s seen suspicion mount in some circles.
“The reality is that if we didn’t have the vaccine, we’d be talking not about thousands but maybe over 10,000 people in hospitals,” he said, noting those without COVID-19 immunization are up to 7.4 times more likely to be hospitalized due to the virus.