Until this week, you could excuse yourself for thinking that the Toronto Raptors had narrowly avoided the worst of the NBA’s Omicron wave.
By Tuesday, COVID-19 had turned the team into a skeleton crew, flying to Chicago with just a handful of regulars ready to face the Bulls the next day.
That game was finally postponed on Wednesday after OG Anunoby became the eighth Raptor to be ruled out by NBA health and safety protocols. Despite daily testing, a roster of double-vaccinated or boosted players, and a scramble for emergency replacements, the team simply couldn’t play.
For experts anticipating how Omicron could affect Ontario, the team’s experience is a harbinger of things to come. If the new variant can force professional sports teams like the Raptors and Maple Leafs, which as of Tuesday had a total of 11 players, three coaches and three staff members in the NHL’s COVID protocols, to stop working, would it? what could that mean? for other Ontario workplaces, perhaps more vulnerable?
“There is a lot of concern about how quickly Omicron can spread and how that can affect the workforce,” said Beate Sander, scientist and chair of Canadian research in infectious disease economics.
“That concern is very, very real in the health system.”
Hospitals are in a better position than most workplaces to reduce transmission, Sander said: There are vaccine mandates and screening policies, generally high-quality masks are available, but those are not as effective shields against Omicron as before. Even people who are twice vaccinated can easily contract and spread the new variant.
And those security measures were also available to the Raptors.
With models projecting that Ontario will hit record case counts in the new year, and each patient forced to isolate himself for days, the province could see hundreds of thousands sick at the same time, he said. “That’s obviously worrying, we’ve never seen anything like it.”
As the Raptors are learning, it’s not easy to replace specialists in a given field if everyone is suddenly out of commission. The team rushed this week to sign temporary replacement players from the NBA’s minor league, and some of these new signings would likely have playing time had Wednesday’s game not been postponed.
But there are no minor league surgeons.
“What worries me the most are jobs that are highly specialized, like healthcare or public services,” Sander said. “You can’t just train someone to replace a healthcare worker on the fly. You cannot train ICU nurses, respirators and doctors and bring them in. “
This is a huge concern for experts who are already concerned about Omicron’s potential to overwhelm Canadian hospitals.
“Cases are going to add up in a very short time,” said Dr. Matthew Oughton, physician in the divisions of infectious diseases and laboratory medicine at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. “That gives you what is effectively a storm surge. A large, sudden surge that can overwhelm your local capacity in any region, whether it’s in available hospital beds or ICU capacity.
“If you have a sudden, rapid surge that you can’t handle, you start to see really serious consequences, whether it’s from the infection itself or if the hospital’s capacity fills up,” Oughton said. “Just because we have Omicron running doesn’t mean that car accidents will stop happening. It does not stop the blows. It doesn’t stop heart attacks. But where are you going to put these people? “
Andrew Costa, assistant professor and chair of Schlegel in clinical epidemiology and aging at McMaster University in Hamilton, fears a repeat of the severe staff shortages seen in Ontario long-term care homes in previous waves.
As of last week, only about a third of LTC staff had received a booster shot, offering roughly 70 percent protection against hiring from Omicron. Meanwhile, two doses only provide about 30 percent protection.
The vaccine should significantly limit the rates of serious illness among staff, but simply contracting the virus comes at a real cost.
“It is very difficult to stay away from this virus,” Costa said. “Staff have to isolate themselves if they are exposed or test positive for COVID and most have not received a third dose. That’s worrying, what if they have to disappear? There is no obvious plan and it can quickly turn into a crisis. “
Costa said the staff shortage poses a much greater risk to nursing home residents than Omicron. Noting that the vast majority of residents are triple vaccinated, he said he is not as concerned about transmission or severe symptoms as he would be otherwise.
“The residents depend on the staff for their food, medication, movement; if there are no people around to help them with that, we will see the residents languish, “he said.
Looking ahead, Costa said it may reach a point where, if the only available staff are people exposed to the virus, they may need to be allowed to go to work.
“Nobody wants that,” he said. “But that’s the worst case. Outbreaks are practically guaranteed if staff get infections. But the risk of a large outbreak is far less than the risk associated with having no one to take care of people there. We don’t want people with bedsores to languish in their beds, getting dirty. That would be much worse. “
Omicron’s threat to the workplace is far from a local or even a national problem; Countries around the world are facing the same explosion of cases, Sander said.
“You have to start thinking about how this could affect everyone around the world,” he said. “Manufacturing, logistics and supply chains could be affected.”
Another Sander concern is the long-term impact of a widespread infection. Recent reports from the UK and South Africa highlight lower rates of hospitalization with Omicron compared to previous variants, but those studies have yet to say anything about long-term complications.
“You often just think about the very immediate effect, what would happen if many people got sick at the same time and had to stay home,” he said. “But one thing we don’t talk about enough about is prolonged COVID. If even 10 percent of people who are sick with COVID have a prolonged COVID, and estimates range from 10 to 30 percent, the number of people affected would be quite considerable if we had many cases.
“And people who develop prolonged COVID may not be able to return to work at full capacity anytime soon.”