February 16, 2022

The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Jan. 21 | CBC News

Public health workers walk along a street Friday in an impoverished neighbourhood in Hyderabad, India, as they conduct a door-to-door-canvas to contract trace for the coronavirus. (Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

Cases in this Omicron wave may have crested, but a pandemic record number are in Canadian hospitals

The number of people hospitalized because of COVID-19 is now at its highest level since the pandemic began, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said at a briefing in Ottawa.

Tam said hospitalization rates are still rising significantly and many hospitals across Canada are under “intense strain.”

“Over the past week, an average of over 10,000 people with COVID-19 were being treated in our hospitals each day, surpassing peak daily numbers for all previous waves of the pandemic,” Tam said. “This includes over 1,100 people in intensive care units, which is higher than all but the third wave peak.”

Tam also said that with test positivity at 22 per cent and the seven-day average of daily cases at almost 27,000, COVID-19 is widespread throughout the country.

There is some indication that case rates are slowly starting to decline, she said.

“In the weeks since the [last] modelling update, there are early indications that infections may have peaked at the national level, including daily case counts, test positivity, Rt or the effective reproduction number and wastewater surveillance trends,” Tam said today.

Nationally, the average daily case count has decreased by 28 per cent since last week. Tam warned that because lab testing can’t keep up with demand as Omicron spreads, that count may underestimate the actual number of cases.

That is almost certainly the case in British Columbia, given the tone of a Friday briefing from Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

The officials there said contact tracing is no longer an effective way of controlling COVID-19 spread and instead asked British Columbians to self-monitor symptoms and follow health orders to help protect society’s most vulnerable.

Henry said there is no longer capacity to test everyone who thinks they may have contracted the illness. Given that the percentage of those who suffer severe outcomes with Omicron is lower than previous variants, and that the variant has a shorter incubation period, the emphasis will be on preventing transmission.

“We cannot eliminate all risk and I think that’s something we need to understand and accept,” said Henry.

The chief health officer stressed that exceptions to that approach would be those who are clinically vulnerable or immunocompromised. Those individuals should still seek out COVID-19 tests, she said.

Both the B.C. and federal officials encouraged uptake of booster shots to protect against Omicron, which has managed to evade two-shot vaccinations more so than Delta. Most provinces and territories have seen 32 to 42 per cent of their populations take up an additional shot, although eligibility periods by age have varied.

According to Health Canada data, Prince Edward Island has the highest rate of total COVID-19 cases per capita over the past seven days among the provinces, followed by Saskatchewan and Alberta. In Canada’s North, the Northwest Territories have a much more significant case rate the past seven days than Nunavut and the Yukon.

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Pre-existing health conditions, poverty rate may help explain Manitoba’s leading hospitalization rate

Manitoba’s COVID-19 hospitalization rate — which on Thursday measured 48 patients for every 100,000 Manitobans— is the highest among the provinces and territories. It’s more than double the national hospitalization rate and nearly triple the rate next door in Saskatchewan.

CBC reporter Bartley Kives spoke to doctors and epidemiologists to get a sense of why that is, and there are a number of possible explanations.

Manitoba is particularly ill-suited to withstand widespread COVID-19 transmission because of a high proportion of people who are either in poor health or have poor access to health-care services, said Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist at St. Boniface Hospital.

Prior to the pandemic, Manitoba had some of Canada’s highest rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, two conditions that predispose people infected with COVID-19 to suffer from more serious outcomes. Manitoba also has a larger Indigenous population than most other provinces, both proportionally and in actual numbers, and a higher-than-average poverty rate for people of all backgrounds.

These social determinants of health likely played a role in the third wave being so severe and appear to be playing a role now as well. First Nations residents, who make up 12 per cent of Manitoba’s population, account for 25 per cent of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“There is a deep societal component to why our rates are so high,” said Winnipeg epidemiologist Souradet Shaw. “COVID is just another in a long line of conditions where Manitobans seem to fare relatively poorly.”

Crowded and substandard housing, especially in Winnipeg, is another social determinant. So is the lack of access to clean water in remote Indigenous communities.

Among other issues cited by those who’ve been immersed in the pandemic for two years is that Manitoba has a few large pockets of low vaccine uptake, as well as a concentration of hospitals and other health-care services that skew to the southern part of the province.

Finally, Shaw argued the government’s approach as Omicron loomed was a ”day late, dollar short,” with the province less stringent on gathering and capacity limits than some other provinces in the days and weeks leading to Christmas.

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American studies suggest COVID-19 boosters improve Omicron protection

Three newly released American studies show that a third dose of an mRNA vaccine is key to fighting the Omicron coronavirus variant, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Friday.

The studies are among the first in the United States to look at the impact of booster doses against the fast-spreading variant. Overall, they suggest that boosters helped protect against both infection and symptomatic disease. Adults aged 50 and older saw the most benefit from an extra dose of the vaccines made by Pfizer with BioNTech, and Moderna.

“Protection against infection and hospitalization with the Omicron variant is highest for those who are up to date with their vaccination, meaning those who are boosted when they are eligible,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a White House briefing on Friday.

One of the studies, published on Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, looked at rates of hospitalization, emergency department and urgent care visits in 10 states between Aug. 26, 2021, and Jan. 5, 2022.

It found that protection from two doses of vaccine fell to 57 per cent in people who got their second shot at least six months earlier. Vaccine effectiveness was best after three doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines in preventing COVID-19-associated emergency department and urgent care visits, with three-shot protection measured at 94 per cent against Delta and a still hearty 82 per cent during the early part of the Omicron wave.

The second study focused on COVID-19 case and death rates in 25 states from the beginning of April through Christmas. People who were boosted had the highest protection against coronavirus infection, both during the time Delta was dominant and also when Omicron was taking over.

In another study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reviewed data on 23,391 COVID-19 cases caused by either the Delta or Omicron variant among people seeking testing between Dec. 10, 2021, and Jan. 1, 2022.

They found that among people seeking testing for COVID-like symptoms, those who had received three doses of an mRNA vaccine had the highest protection from infection compared with those who got two doses or were unvaccinated.

Separately, the CDC said on its website that data from December indicated that those 50 to 64 years of age who were unvaccinated showed up at hospitals at a rate 44 times more than those in their cohort who had received a booster shot. For those 65 years and older, those unvaccinated were 49 times more likely to be admitted than those who had been boosted.

The three papers echo previous research — including studies in Germany, South Africa and the U.K. — indicating available vaccines are less effective against Omicron than earlier versions of the coronavirus, but also that boosters significantly improve protection.

Some of the findings were cited by reporters at the federal government’s briefing in Ottawa on Friday. Health officials stressed the importance of booster shots for those eligible, but could not be pinned on whether or when the definition of “fully vaccinated” might change given the disparities noted in the new research.

Provisional deaths and excess mortality in Canada

Data supports there being excess death in Canada since the pandemic compared to recent pre-pandemic years. The number of excess deaths is measured as the difference between the number of observed deaths and the number of expected deaths over a certain period of time.

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