TORONTO (Reuters) -Canada is set to advise its population to avoid international travel while provinces ramp up vaccinations to combat the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant. But efforts to head off a rising COVID-19 wave are complicated by public pandemic fatigue.
COVID-19 case numbers are increasing here as Canadian hospitals struggle to clear backlogs from months of postponed procedures as surgeries were put off due to staff reassignments and people delayed medical treatments amid pandemic fears. Many burnt-out staff members appear ill-equipped for another COVID-19 surge.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, set to speak on Omicron measures Wednesday afternoon, was expected to advise Canadians to avoid non-essential international travel, a source told Reuters here, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In a meeting with provincial premiers on Tuesday, Trudeau also discussed a possible ban on non-essential incoming travelers, CBC News reported.
Canada already has travel bans on 10 African countries because of Omicron concerns. Canada advised people in March 2020 not to travel abroad unless necessary but in October of this year – before the first Omicron cases were reported – withdrew the notice, 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 definitive conclusions about the severity of the disease it causes.
There is “massive vulnerability” in Canada’s healthcare systems, according to Toronto infectious disease doctor Andrew Morris, and it is “highly likely” they will be overwhelmed.
The intensive care unit that Dr. Christie Lee oversees at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto has been relatively lucky. The unit 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, which experienced a punishing fourth wave, Dr. Christopher Doig’s Calgary ICU 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, adding: “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.
In Kingston, where the infection rate this week was the highest in Ontario, health officials have clamped down on private gatherings and the hours that food and alcohol are allowed to be served indoors at businesses like restaurants and bars. Singing, dancing and live music are prohibited at establishments serving food and drink.
Ontario said this week it is “temporarily interrupting” its return-to-office plan for provincial employees. Other large employers including banks have also halted their return-to-office plans.
Health officials are trying to convince the public of the need for a third vaccine dose. Provinces including Manitoba have expanded such third doses to everyone over 18. 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 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 be handing out five tests per person starting next week and 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.
“We need to acknowledge after 21 months there’s enormous fatigue,” he told reporters. “The notion of isolating a whole lot more people for a second straight Christmas, unable to have any contact with family, I think that could have a devastating impact on the mental and emotional wellbeing of many people.”
Jüni said he understands 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.”
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