Modelling group’s newest report warns of soaring COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations due to Omicron

Modelling group's newest report warns of soaring COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations due to Omicron

A new report from an independent group of researchers analyzing the COVID-19 pandemic warns that the situation in British Columbia is likely going to get worse.

Much worse.

According to the B.C. COVID 19 Modelling Group‘s latest report, released Dec. 22, daily cases in the province could reach between 2,500 and 5,000 per day or higher before the end of the month, depending on the scenario. Hospital admissions could reach hit 1,600 or higher per day by January.

Even in less severe scenarios, the modelling report suggests that the pressure on hospitals will be “extreme in January” and reach levels higher than anything “witnessed to date.” It also suggests that cases on Vancouver Island could reach 400 per day by early 2022.

Eric Cytrynbaum, associate professor of math at the University of British Columbia and member of the modelling group, said although there is still lots to learn about Omicron, the province is looking at the exponential growth of new cases that will eventually lead to a “bad situation” in two to three weeks.

“There’s no candy-coating it,” he said. “This is the scenario that we feared back in March 2020 where we didn’t understand what’s going on and we thought all hell would break loose.”

The new report comes a little more than a week after the B.C. government released its own modelling, which projected cases will climb as high as 2,000 per day by early January while hospitalizations could climb above 75 people per day in an extreme scenario.

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Cases have soared in recent weeks since Omicron’s arrival, particularly on southern Vancouver Island where confirmed infections have climbed 18.5 per cent and active cases skyrocketed 589 per cent since Dec. 8. Provincewide, new infections have only climbed about four per cent since Dec. 8. However, the number of confirmed Omicron cases in B.C. has gone from just 10 on Dec. 10 to 756 on Dec. 21 – a 7,460 per cent increase.

Though it has become clear that the Omicron variant is far more transmissible than previous variants, a lot remains unknown about it such as whether it can completely evade vaccines or if it will lead to more hospitalizations.

“The puzzle pieces here are how many people are susceptible? How many of those that get infected will go to hospital?” said Cytrynbaum. “We’ve had increases in transmission before but we’ve always been able to get the measures in place and adhere to in order to keep it under control. But now, I don’t know how much more public health is willing or capable of doing.”

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A newly released study by Imperial College London that estimated hospitalization risks for Omicron cases in England found people infected with the variant were around 20 per cent less likely to wind up in hospital than those infected with Delta and 40 per cent less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more. The study has not been peer-reviewed, which is the gold standard in scientific research.

Another study, which also hasn’t been peer-reviewed, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh, suggested the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta. But that study pointed out that the nearly 24,000 Omicron cases in Scotland were predominantly among younger adults ages 20-39 — younger people are much less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19 than older people.

“Maybe it is milder, there have also been reports out of South Africa that this is milder and that we won’t see as many people go to hospital,” said Cytrynbaum. “But that is a fraction and if you have exponential growth, a fraction of exponential growth is still exponential growth.”

Cytrynbaum points out that case numbers often do predict the trajectory of hospitalizations and that even if the percentage of those who end up in hospital is relatively low, as long as there is an exponential number of new cases over a long enough period of time, hospitalizations will increase.

“Even if the percentage is lower … as long as you have exponential growth for a long enough period of time, you will get above the levels that we want to stay below,” he said. “And if there’s enough of a susceptible population, then we could grow for a while and rapidly.”

“We’re still going to hit our limits within weeks, rather than months like we were looking at with Delta,” he added.

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Current B.C. data shows that out of the 231,171 confirmed cases in the province since the pandemic began, 5.5 per cent of those cases has resulted in some form of hospitalization.

“You add those up and as far as I can tell, there’s no scenario in which the hospitalization rate is so low that the exponential growth through hundreds of thousands of people that are susceptible will keep us below hospital capacities.”

The number of people in hospital has generally been trending downward on Vancouver Island, though it has risen in recent days, according to data from the BCCDC. As of Dec. 22, there were 38 people in hospital on the island.

Cytrynbaum stressed that based on the group’s modelling data, British Columbia’s hospital capacity could be maxed out within a matter of weeks, not months — even if Omicron is milder than Delta.

“For every factor of two you decrease the severity of [Omicron], the fraction of those that go to the hospital, you go one more doubling time. So if the doubling time stays at three days before it doubles, then, one factor of two lower because of mildness, then you get an extra three days before you hit capacity,” explained Cytrynbaum.

“A factor of four milder and it’s six days before you hit the hospital capacity. So it’s still rapid, we’re still going to hit our limits within weeks, rather than months like we were looking at with Delta.”

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While it is easy and tempting to look at what is happening around the world, Cytrynbaum said the focus is on what is happening in British Columbia, which has seen a rapid growth of new infections.

“The data here says that we’re growing rapidly and there is no obvious reason to think we’re not going to continue to grow rapidly,” he said.

Doctors and experts across B.C. and around the country have urged the provincial government to take more proactive steps to help reduce the risk of infection, from making rapid tests more widely available to expanding booster shot availability and introducing restrictions.

Although the B.C. government did introduce measures and restrictions limiting indoor gatherings and forcing the closure of certain businesses that are now in effect across the province, Cytrynbaum said from a public health perspective, the new measures are not going to be enough.

“For the people who are largely affected by the restrictions economically, probably don’t think this is mild,” he said. “But from a perspective of getting the transmission rate low enough to avoid disaster, it’s not enough. We need something that is more dramatic than what we did in April of last year.”

With files from the Associated Press

A chart showing possible scenarios in British Columbia due to the Omicron variant. (Chart: B.C. Modelling Group)

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Nicholas PescodNicholas Pescod

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