Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam is seen via videoconference as Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos looks on during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic and the omicron variant, in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. Tam says increased COVID-19 transmission is “not unexpected” as public health measures are lifted and cases pick up internationally. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam is seen via videoconference as Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos looks on during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic and the omicron variant, in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. Tam says increased COVID-19 transmission is “not unexpected” as public health measures are lifted and cases pick up internationally. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Bump in COVID-19 cases ‘not unexpected’ as health measures lifted, Tam says

But any increase in hospitalization is expected to be less than what we just saw

Canada’s top public health officials have suggested the country is unlikely to be caught up in the new wave of COVID-19 cases around the world, but could instead see a “blip” this spring.

Dr. Theresa Tam expects a rise in COVID-19 cases as public health measures are lifted in Canada, but says the number of cases with severe outcomes should be manageable.

“Hospitalizations could certainly come up when cases go up. However, it is expected that increase in hospitalization would be less than what we just saw,” said Tam, the chief public health officer, referring to the massive Omicron wave Canada is only now riding out.

The Omicron wave of COVID-19 led to a new round of public health restrictions and school closures as hospitals were once again stressed to their limits to accommodate the huge number of cases coming through their doors.

Since the peak in January, cases have been declining steadily and have since levelled off, with approximately 5,000 cases reported daily.

The daily average number of people in hospital with COVID-19 declined by 11 per cent since last week, and the number of people in intensive care declined by 14 per cent.

But as Canada’s situation has stabilized, worrying trends have begun to emerge elsewhere.

The World Health Organization warned Tuesday that several regions have seen increases in cases in the Western Pacific, Africa and Europe.

While deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus are declining around the world, the Western Pacific region has seen a 12 per cent increase in people killed by COVID-19 in the last week.

The renewed spread of COVID-19 abroad has been partially blamed on BA.2, a sublineage of the Omicron variant that has been dubbed “stealth Omicron.”

Tam said the international data suggests BA.2 seeks out and targets people with poor immunity, including unvaccinated people without prior exposure to the Omicron variant.

That’s why Canada, with 85 per cent of eligible people fully vaccinated, may be in a better position to prevent hospitalizations “even if there’s a spring blip” in cases, Tam said.

BA.2 is spreading relatively slowly in Canada, and accounted for about 22 per cent of cases as of Feb. 20. It doesn’t appear to to cause more severe illness than other variants, Tam said.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says about 56 per cent of adults have received a booster shot. Tam said there is a particular gap among people in their 50s.

“That would, I think, still be very relevant given the potential for an uptick as the public health measures are eased,” Tam said.

The public health agency will be watching booster rates closely as the fall approaches, but generally, provinces are moving away from using vaccine mandates, she said.

“We want Canadians to want to get it because it makes sense,” she said.

The federal government is also examining its use of vaccine mandates for public sector workers and travel, she said.

As federal ministers decide on their next move, Tam said they should consider that vaccines are not particularly good at preventing Omicron transmission.

“We’re in a period of uncertainty where the virus is still undergoing evolution,” she said.

“So getting up to date with vaccines plus wearing a mask is still a really good idea.”

“All of that should be taken into account as the employer or the federal government looks at the policies going forwards,” she said.

Canada is generally moving away from fixating on case counts, as it enters a “transition phase” of the pandemic, she said.

While the public health agency will continue to watch for geographically representative trends around the country and around the world, Tam said it will be keeping a much closer eye on hospitalizations and severe cases.

Tam said the best way to prevent those outcomes is for as many people as possible to get a full slate of vaccines, including a booster.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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