Omicron’s strain on B.C.’s hospitals grows, with health experts divided on when it will peak

Omicron's strain on B.C.'s hospitals grows, with health experts divided on when it will peak-Milenio Stadium-Canada
A paramedic is pictured at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The strain on British Columbia’s hospitals from COVID-19’s Omicron variant is deepening, with health experts warning its impact will be felt for months.

On Tuesday, the province announced more postponed surgeries, reduced ambulatory care services, and health-care staff redeployed to emergency wards in some regions.

“The impact is clear on our health system,” said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the University of B.C.’s Faculty of Medicine. “It’s going to continue to have this impact for months to come.

“Everybody has felt the strain.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix says the measures announced Tuesday are designed to stabilize the health-care system while the province continues to battle COVID-19 and the Omicron variant.

“We are determined to get services back and running fully, as fast as possible. The Omicron cases have had a significant effect on all of our health-care systems and our health-care workers — you see that in the number of people who are off sick.”

More than 95 per cent of B.C.’s hospital bed capacity is currently occupied with regular as well as COVID-19 patients, according to Dix, and seven hospitals across B.C. — Surrey Memorial, Abbotsford Regional, Langley Memorial, Burnaby, Peace Arch, Kelowna General and Royal Jubilee hospitals — have outbreaks.

Modelling data presented late last week showed community transmission going down in most health regions across B.C., but the province says hospitalizations are expected to continue to climb for at least another week or two.

Cases numbers among elderly still increasing

But not everyone is as optimistic.

The B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group, an independent organization of health modelling experts, warned Wednesday that whether community transmission has peaked is not clear.  In vulnerable population, it’s still increasing.

“The trends in those most vulnerable to Omicron, among those people that are 70 and older continue to rise,” said University of B.C. professor Sally Otto, the Canada research chair in theoretical and experimental evolution in an interview with CBC’s The Early Edition.

“So we’re seeing an increase in cases that has not peaked.”

Otto said the number of hospitalizations remains the best predictor of when the current pandemic wave is about to subside. But she said there is one sign of hope when you look at the data for those over 70 years old and hospitalization rates.

“They both suggest we’ve actually bent down the curve substantially of Omicron case infections in B.C. roughly from 20 per cent growth per day to something like 10 per cent growth per day,” she said. “By bending that curve down, the peak hospitalization demand has lowered substantially.”

‘We’re all fingers crossed’

UBC’s Murthy says he’s reassured “the system is still there” to provide oxygen, fluids and urgent care for patients who are “acutely unwell” and need to be hospitalized.

But he’s less sure about the impact of postponing so-called “non-emergency” surgeries that include operations for cancer and other serious conditions.

“Having cancer surgery delayed, having neurosurgery delayed, is going to cause mortality impact regardless of COVID-specific mortality,” he told CBC News. “It doesn’t give me a lot of solace.”

At this point, despite reassurances from the province’s health authorities, B.C.’s health-care system is strained to “pretty much that limit,” Murthy said. If the province’s modelling of an imminent decline in infections is accurate, it should help eventually relieve some of the strain on hospitals.

“We’re all fingers crossed hoping that that’s true,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, obviously it’s going to be a challenge.”

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