Recent data shows that COVID-19 hospitalization rates in many parts of Canada have climbed to the highest levels since the peak of the Omicron wave last winter. With healthcare systems under strain, experts say more measures may be needed to curb viral spread as cooler weather drives people indoors.
COVID-19 Hospitalization rates on the rise
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the average number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 nationally has increased around 65 percent from early September to over 5,300 as of October 18.
Several provinces are reporting patient loads comparable to or exceeding those during the height of the Omicron surge in January 2022, when over 10,000 people with COVID-19 flooded Canadian hospitals. Currently, Ontario’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have surpassed 2,400, the most since February. Quebec is averaging over 2,000 hospitalizations for the first time since February, while Manitoba’s 437 hospitalizations are the highest since mid-January.
Driving these escalating admission rates is the spread of Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which have shown an enhanced ability to evade immunity. Limited vaccination uptake and waning immunity from previous shots or infections have left more Canadians vulnerable to severe outcomes. The elderly have been disproportionately impacted, making up over half of hospitalizations in some regions.
COVID-19 Straining Healthcare Capacity
Rising COVID-19 hospitalizations are straining the capacity of healthcare facilities that are already managing typical seasonal demands, creating a ripple effect of delayed treatments, long emergency room waits, and healthcare staff burnout.
In Quebec, over one-quarter of the province’s hospitals have occupancy rates exceeding 100 percent. Ontario paused all non-urgent surgeries and procedures to free up staff and beds. Health officials have opened “war rooms” to manage hospital capacity issues and warned that further service slowdowns may be unavoidable if trends continue.
Calls for increased measures
In light of ballooning hospitalization rates, some health experts are urging policymakers to consider greater public health measures as cooler weather drives activities indoors where transmission risk is higher.
Possible steps could include masking mandates in public settings, improved ventilation, readily available testing, encouraging vaccination boosters, and clear messaging about measures individuals can take to reduce infection risk.
However, appetite for large-scale restrictions appears limited for now as governments emphasize COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
Importance of boosters
Health officials maintain that COVID-19 booster shots are a key tool in combatting severe outcomes that lead to hospitalization. Canadian data indicates that boosters restore waning immunity, providing over 60 percent protection against hospitalization for up to 10 weeks.
Yet booster uptake remains low, with less than half of those over age 60 having received boosters targeting Omicron subvariants. Promoting boosters for vulnerable populations is critical. Officials say a fall booster campaign could help flatten hospitalization curves, as with past vaccination drives.
Cautious optimism for the future
Looking ahead, some experts say there are reasons for cautious optimism regarding the pandemic’s impact on hospitals. Oral antiviral treatments like Paxlovid that significantly reduce hospitalization risk are becoming more widely available. Population immunity through vaccination and previous infection also continues to rise.
Nonetheless, pressure on healthcare systems remains precariously high in many regions. Experts stress that individual actions like masking, distancing, testing, ventilation, and vaccination help curb viral spread. Policymakers may need to take further steps to flatten the curve if hospitalizations continue mounting through the fall and winter.