Illustration of a red coronavirus, with distinctive spikes, surrounded by syringes arranged in a circle, with the pointy tips aimed at the stylized virus.
Photo: Jeremy Bezanger / Unsplash

In a briefing Friday afternoon, federal government officials are advising Canadians that if the Omicron variant replaces Delta as it has elsewhere, the number of COVID-19 cases could rapidly “inundate” the health system.

Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam said if Omicron does become predominant, it could have a “much stronger and faster” resurgence than any the country has experienced before.

“This could affect jurisdictions across Canada with the potential to overwhelm health care capacity,” Tam said.

Omicron numbers worldwide have increased rapidly since last week. On Tuesday the World Health Organization (WHO) noted the variant has been reported in 77 countries but is likely present in most.

Tam said 350 confirmed Omicron cases have now been reported in 11 provinces and territories.

“Increasing numbers of these cases are not linked to travel, signaling that community transmission has been established in several areas of the country, with outbreaks occurring in multiple settings,” Tam told reporters.

A smiling Dr. Theresa Tam in a headshot. She has shoulder length brown hair and is wearing a floral patterned top.
Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam. Photo: Government of Canada

In order to counteract what she described as the most rapidly spreading variant to date, Canadians are urged to combine protection from vaccines with continued best efforts and individual precautions.

“While we are still studying the severity profile of this variant, if Omicron replaces Delta, it’s expected the sheer number of cases could inundate the health system in a very short period of time,” Tam said.

Tam said the rapid increase in Omicron cases is “likely already” contributing to the accelerated growth of cases in the country. Over the past seven days, an average of more than 5,000 new cases were reported daily across Canada, 45% higher than the previous seven-day period.

While severe illness trends have started increasing in the most heavily impacted provinces, Tam said it’s likely due to rising levels of Delta variant activity over the last few weeks.

On average over the past week, 1,450 people with COVID-19 are being treated in hospitals daily, with more than 450 in intensive care units and 19 deaths reported daily.

“This latest trend in disease activity increased the urgency to slow the rate of spread immediately in an effort to head off as much of the acceleration as we can,” she said.

In addition to urging all those eligible to get their COVID-19 vaccines and booster doses, she urged Canadians to follow updated guidance on indoor ventilation and recommendations on the proper use, construction, and fit of face masks

“As health authorities across Canada strengthen recommendations to protect our already strained and fragile health care system, and as a profoundly exhausted health care workforce is faced with a potential looming crisis in the weeks to come, I’m urging Canadians across the country to please carefully consider and adjust your holiday plans to minimize risks and maximize layers and quality of protection for you and yours,” Tam said.

During the same briefing, federal Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos said in French that Canadians must avoid the “perfect storm” in the coming weeks — rapidly increasing case numbers and more people in need of care combined with more infected workers potentially unable to help them.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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