Hospitalization numbers may not look high right now, but Omicron’s rapid spread could be challenging.

Omicron is “exploding” across the province, and unless Ontario accelerates the launch of third doses and steps up public health measures, things will get “very challenging” in the health care system, says the chief of the board. scientific advisor of the province.

“What we know now,” Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Board, told the Star, “is that there are approximately 1.5 million people in the province, 11 years and older and not vaccinated. And if they become infected in a very short time, and that’s plausible, this can quickly overwhelm the health care system. ”

With just 518 patients in Ontario hospitals on Christmas Eve (164 in the ICU, according to the Science Table’s Ontario Dashboard) and hospitalizations increasing only gradually, the numbers may not seem high just yet.

But, Juni says, math and modeling tell a different story.

The good news, he says, is that recent analyzes from abroad, as well as from Public Health Ontario, estimate that the risk of being hospitalized by Omicron, whether vaccinated or not, is about half what it was with the Delta variant.

The bad news, he says, is that Omicron is much more aggressive and moves much, much faster. At worst, he said, the Delta variant doubled every two weeks. Omicron, by comparison, he says, doubles every three to four days. “Compared to last year’s winter wave,” Juni says, “it’s exploding.”

While Ontario’s testing system is overwhelmed right now, he said, it is difficult to estimate how many people in the province are currently infected with Omicron. But based on previous estimates of other variants, Juni says he assumes that only about 20 percent of active cases are currently being incorporated into daily statistics. If that’s correct, he says, it means that about 50,000 people a day in Ontario are receiving this new variant, whether they are vaccinated or not.

The challenge, Juni says, is to keep the curve as low as possible so that the spike in ICU admissions doesn’t overwhelm the healthcare system. That’s where public health measures become critical, he says. On December 19, the Ontario government again restricted the size of public and private gatherings, but it’s unclear if that’s having an impact at the moment.

Vaccines are of paramount importance, he says, and the focus should be on third doses, as well as giving second doses to children between the ages of five and 11. An English study, he says, estimates that having three vaccines makes you four times less likely to be infected with this fast-moving variant than someone with two doses, and six times less likely to contract it than someone who is not vaccinated.

“Three doses will protect it solidly,” Juni said. “What we still don’t know is how much protection two doses will offer against hospital admissions and ICU admissions, but it looks good.” He added that Science Table will better understand those risks in about a week, as hospital admissions due to Omicron inevitably rise and data on it starts to come in faster and more furiously.

While this variant landed in the province about a month ago, Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease doctor, says that so far it has been difficult to analyze statistically because it is still early. To get a full picture of this variant and how it may affect Ontarians and the province’s health care system, infections must filter through vulnerable, unvaccinated populations that end up in the hospital. And that takes time.

“The clock starts around now,” says Bogoch, adding that hospitals are beginning to prepare for an increase in cases.

Earlier Sunday, Bogoch said he helped open a designated COVID ward at Toronto General Hospital, although there are not many infected patients in the wards yet.

As of Sunday afternoon, there were 19 positive patients at TGH and Toronto Western Hospital combined, according to University Health Network spokeswoman Gillian Howard.

David Jacobs, a radiologist at Humber River Hospital, told the Star that right now, as of Sunday, the numbers are extremely low compared to last year’s peak.

Humber River Hospital currently has 25 COVID patients, three of them in the ICU, he said, noting that most are over 60 years old and several included in the count were incidentally positive, after being admitted by others. reasons.

From what he’s seeing on the ground, Jacobs says he doesn’t expect Omicron to test Humber’s ICU capabilities. If anything, he says the bottleneck and strain at the hospital, and the healthcare system in general, may be due more to staffing issues.

Because Omicron appears to be causing mild symptoms in those vaccinated, Jacobs says, and those people don’t go to the hospital, “we have a lot more Omicron than we count right now.” But because it is so contagious and so prevalent in the population, it is inevitable that hospital staff will get sick like the rest of us.

“That,” he said, “will take them off active duty for a period of time” and can make it difficult to treat patients.

While Humber has been treating a large number of patients with respiratory symptoms, a runny nose and a sore throat, Jacobs said “the vast majority receive a diagnosis and go home.”

The few who stay are usually quite sick and so are those who are not vaccinated. “So he said,” Please go get vaccinated. ”

Michele Henry is a Toronto-based Star reporter who writes stories on health and education. Follow her on Twitter: @michelehenry

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