By Anna Mehler Paperny and Steve Scherer
TORONTO – Canada’s government implored its residents on Wednesday not to leave the country as provinces ramp up vaccinations to combat the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant, even as efforts to head off a rising COVID-19 wave are complicated by public fatigue over the pandemic.
COVID-19 case numbers are increasing as Canadian hospitals struggle to clear backlogs from months of postponed procedures. Many burnt-out staff members appear ill-equipped for another surge in infections.
“I say very clearly: Now is not the time to travel,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said at a news conference, adding that it’s clear there is community transmission of Omicron in Canada.
Duclos also said the government is sending millions more COVID-19 vaccine doses and rapid tests to the 10 provinces.
Canada already has travel bans on 10 African countries because of concerns about the new variant. Canada advised people in March 2020 not to travel abroad unless necessary but it withdrew the notice in October of this year — before the first Omicron cases were reported — citing the success of vaccination campaigns.
Peter Jüni, director of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, urged people to take precautions, get vaccinated and not take Omicron lightly.
“What really worries me is that people are asleep at the steering wheel, internationally,” Jüni said. “They have wishful thinking it will be mild … This is not a realistic attitude.”
Scientists suspect Omicron is more transmissible given its rapid spread though they caution it’s too early to draw conclusions about the severity of the disease it causes.
There is “massive vulnerability” in Canada’s healthcare systems, said Andrew Morris, an infectious disease doctor in Toronto, who added that it is “highly likely” they will be overwhelmed.
The intensive care unit Dr. Christie Lee oversees at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto secured some breathing room following the last COVID-19 wave, tried to give staff vacation time and has been able to train new critical-care nurses.
“We’ve been told to prepare, potentially, for rapidly increasing cases,” Lee said.
In Alberta, a Western Canadian province which experienced a punishing fourth wave, Dr. Christopher Doig’s ICU in Calgary still has COVID-19 patients, some of whom have been there for weeks. It is still operating at about 110% capacity, Doig said.
Shifting staff from other areas lets them “surge up” if needed, Doig said. “The downside of those surges is it pulls staff from other areas,” and the pandemic backlog of surgeries grows.
‘VIRUS DOESN’T CARE’
Provinces have been reluctant to tighten restrictions again but some communities are taking matters into their own hands.
Ontario, the country’s most populous province, said this week it is “temporarily interrupting” its return-to-office plan for provincial employees.
Health officials are trying to convince the public to get third doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Provinces including Manitoba have expanded such third doses to everyone 18 and older. Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia and other provinces have been rolling them out more slowly, targeting older or more medically vulnerable people first.
Amid fears of asymptomatic COVID-19 transmission, provinces that were given millions of rapid antigen tests by the federal government have come under fire for not distributing them more widely.
Ontario promised to make 2 million tests available in “high-traffic” areas and to allot five per student to school children this week. Quebec will hand out five tests per person starting next week. Alberta promised to give out 500,000 starting Friday.
British Columbia health officials said this week they had not received the tests they were hoping for from the federal government and defended the province’s providing tens of thousands of rapid tests a week to hundreds of private employers.
Meanwhile, Alberta loosened restrictions on private gatherings Wednesday, with Premier Jason Kenney citing pandemic fatigue.
Jüni said he understands that people are tired of the pandemic.
“I’m completely exhausted,” Jüni said. “I’ve had it. I’m done completely. But the virus doesn’t care.”