Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) officials made that suggestion Friday morning when they presented new modelling projecting the trajectory of COVID-19 in Canada.
The country is currently seeing a resurgence of cases driven primarily by the Delta variant, which remains the dominant variant in Canada.
However, if infections continue to rise as they are and if Omicron takes hold, the variant could outpace Delta and drive infections up to 26,600 a day by mid-January.
“Although this forecast is concerning, we are reminded that models only show future possibilities – and that with fast and appropriate action, we can avoid a worst-case scenario trajectory as we have done in the past,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada.
“The speed of Omicron transmission and potential for strong resurgence means we must approach the coming weeks with an abundance of caution and at the same time be prepared to act quickly to control spread at the first sign of rapidly accelerating cases.”
The data also provided the first look at how the new Omicron variant — which was discovered last month in South Africa — can have an impact in Canada.
The World Health Organization has warned it could slow the world’s fight against the pandemic, and several countries like Canada have imposed travel restrictions on African nations to limit its spread.
Tam said to date, Canada has logged 87 cases of Omicron in seven jurisdictions. The majority of those cases are linked to international travel or close contact with travellers.
However, there is some suspected community transmission. All cases have either been asymptomatic or mild in nature, officials said.
While the projections seem daunting, Tam said Canada is in a better position to battle COVID-19 than last year thanks to vaccines.
“This is a gift we did not have last year,” she said. “It is tough and this virus keeps dealing us the next card in the deck and sometimes it’s difficult to imagine, but we can get through this.”
Last year, Canada was seeing double the number of daily cases and more than double the number of people with COVID-19 in hospitals and intensive care units daily. Daily reported deaths are down 82 per cent than this time last year, Tam added.
“Vaccines and our expanding coverage continue to give us an advantage over this virus, and while some reduction in protection is possible with the Omicron variant, COVID-19 vaccines are still expected to provide a level of protection, particularly against severe outcomes,” she said.
Preliminary data suggests Omicron has the potential to spread faster than Delta, but it’s not known whether it poses a higher or lower risk of severe illness and death. Early data from South Africa shows Omicron does not cause more severe illness, but officials said more data is needed to get a definitive answer.
Vaccine effectiveness against Omicron is under investigation. Officials said it’s possible the variant could decrease vaccine protection against infection, but some level of protection against severe disease is likely to remain.
Omicron may also be able to escape immunity from prior infection, PHAC suggests in its modelling. In Canada and across the world, cases have been reported in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
With that theory in mind, officials strongly encourage vaccinating children and providing booster doses to all adults to help reduce COVID-19’s impact through next year.
And while Delta remains dominant, disease activity can be reduced if transmission levels decrease, officials added.
“While these are just theoretical scenarios, this modelling highlights the importance of expanding and strengthening our vaccination programs to reduce the risk of strong resurgence,” Tam said.
“Despite the uncertainties ahead, taking steps to protect ourselves through vaccination combined with other measures can help provide time to plan and build understanding of how the pandemic may evolve.”
Over the past week, there were an average of more than 3,300 new cases reported daily across Canada. On average, more than 1,460 people with COVID-19 were in hospital, including 450 in intensive care units, and 20 deaths were reported daily.
Canada’s increasing virus cases is being driven primarily driven by epidemic growth in Ontario and Quebec. On Friday, Ontario reported 1,453 new cases and Quebec reported 2,013 new infections.
Roughly 95 per cent of Canadians are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccines; 81 per cent of the total population is partially vaccinated and 76 per cent is fully inoculated, Tam said.
“However, with the inclusion of five- to 11-year-olds, there are currently over seven million Canadians who are eligible but not yet fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Tam said. “So it’s important we continue efforts to increase vaccine coverage to protect everyone we can.”
— with files from Reuters
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.