Ontario hospitals are feeling the brunt of soaring COVID-19 case counts as the virus rips through the province at record speed and infects high numbers of patients and health-care workers.
The situation has become so serious that some hospital networks are reporting that hundreds of their staff members have tested positive for the virus, are symptomatic or are in isolation after an exposure.
Kevin Smith, president and CEO of Toronto’s University Health Network, says those factors combined have resulted in at least 100 staff absences per day as the highly transmissible Omicron variant drives case counts to unprecedented highs across the province.
“There aren’t health-care workers growing on trees, so it’s a very, very limited supply, and they’re in hot demand everywhere,” Smith said in a telephone interview.
The number of staff unable to work at UHN’s five facilities in recent weeks — including Toronto General, Toronto Western and Princess Margaret hospitals — is higher than what the facilities experienced in previous waves of the virus.
The high number of unavailable staff comes as Smith has noticed fewer critically ill people entering hospital from the virus. This is despite the fact that Public Health Ontario reported 16,714 new infections on Sunday and a record 18,445 cases on Saturday, noting both figures are considered underestimates.
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The number of active cases in the province has now crossed the 100,000 mark.
While Smith said staff are managing the current volumes well, he worries about the situation changing.
“I’m obviously worried that as we get people engaged in larger and larger amounts of social interaction, including in schools and other environments, there is risk of additional and significant spread,” he said.
“Our hope is that populations like those wouldn’t require hospitalization, but we have to be prepared for the fact that they will because in other countries, we’re seeing kids’ admissions going up.”
To prepare, Smith is urging Health Canada to immediately approve Paxlovid, Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pills, for emergency use.
He is also looking at redeploying staff to areas most in need and pulling hospital doctors and nurses back from vaccine clinics, where they can be replaced with other regulated health-care workers.
West of Toronto, similar moves are being considered at Hamilton Health Sciences, which runs Hamilton General Hospital.
Earlier in the week, organization president and CEO Rob MacIsaac asked vacationing, part-time and casual staff to pick up extra hours in exchange for premium pay up until Wednesday.
He made the appeal as the new year began with at least 411 of his staff in isolation at home and numerous outbreaks across his hospital sites.
“Unfortunately, the Omicron variant has set us back several steps,” MacIsaac said in a news release. “Consequently, we are once again facing immense pressures around hospital occupancy and staffing.”
Hospitals were experiencing an increase in patients who tested positive for COVID-19. Many were admitted due to medical conditions not linked to the virus, he said.
More than 100 in-patients at his hospitals were positive for COVID-19 as of Dec. 31, and 13 were in intensive care units.
Emergency department volumes were simultaneously exceeding pre-pandemic volumes and seeing an increase in the number of patients arriving to the hospitals by ambulance on a daily basis.
On top of asking health-care workers to pick up extra shifts and hours, MacIsaac said his organization would turn to “extraordinary measures,” such as ramping down “procedural and scheduled care” beginning on Tuesday to divert resources to areas of “greatest need.”
He also said he would soon share more information on plans to call back asymptomatic staff with a negative rapid antigen test, who are currently isolating at home, as well as efforts to deploy workers from ambulatory areas to support in-patient care.
What’s happening across Canada
With testing capacity strained, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will begin to report more precise data that separates the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also happen to test positive for COVID-19.
In British Columbia, Pacific Coastal Airlines — an operator that serves smaller communities throughout the province’s West Coast and Interior — has suspended operations for two days due to Omicron cases at its operational control centre at the South Terminal of the Vancouver International Airport.
In the Prairies, Manitoba is now permitting workers at child-care facilities, child and family services and others who have mild COVID-19 symptoms but have tested negative for the virus to return to work. Meanwhile, a number of trials and appearances scheduled to get underway in Alberta courts this month will be postponed following the enactment of stricter pandemic measures.
In Quebec, demonstrators in Montreal defied a curfew on Saturday evening to protest against measures imposed on residents in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The province reported 15,845 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday and 13 new deaths.
In the Atlantic region, Newfoundland and Labrador has set a single-day record for COVID-19 infections for a sixth straight day with 466 cases announced on Sunday. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia logged 1,893 infections over the past two days, and Prince Edward Island announced 137 cases since its last update on Dec. 31. And starting Tuesday at 11:59 p.m., PCR tests will be available only for select populations deemed high risk in New Brunswick.
In the North, Nunavut confirmed another 22 cases on Sunday — raising the territory’s active case count to 196 — and residents in the N.W.T. capital in need of a COVID-19 test will be able to attend a walk-in clinic on Monday morning.
What’s happening around the world
As of Sunday, roughly 289.4 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.4 million.
In Asia, India reported more than 27,000 new cases on Sunday, data from the Health Ministry showed, amid growing concerns of a potential new surge stoked by the Omicron variant.
In Europe, the British government has been making contingency plans in case hospitals, schools and other workplaces are hit by major staff shortages amid the country’s record-breaking spike in coronavirus infections.
In the Americas, passengers on the cruise ship MSC Preziosa had to wait more than six hours to disembark at Rio de Janeiro Sunday due to an inspection by Brazilian health authorities that confirmed 28 cases of COVID-19 on board — 26 among passengers and two in crew members.
In Africa, South Africa has lifted a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew on people’s movements, believing the country has passed the peak of its Omicron-driven fourth wave.
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Coronavirus: Canada Post employees punished for N95 masks – CTV News
Canada Post workers risk being sent home from work if they wear masks other than ones issued by the corporation, even if their masks are an upgrade in safety.
Employees who buy their own N95 masks and bring them to work are being told to switch to company issued cloth masks or risk being sent home.
“The mask requirements, like our vaccine mandate, are mandatory and necessary under direction from the (Employment and Social Development Canada [ESDC]),” a spokesperson for Canada Post said in an emailed statement. “Therefore anyone at work must comply.”
“If they don’t have the masks we’ve provided, we have additional masks and disposable medical masks on hand. If an employee still does not wish to comply, they are asked to leave the workplace.”
Canada Post said Public Health Agency of Canada supports the use of cloth masks and that the company following directives from the ESDC that require employees to wear company supplied masks to ensure their quality.
“The company fully supports these guidelines and therefore requires all employees to wear a Canada Post-supplied face covering, which is either a reusable cloth face covering or a disposable medical mask,” Canada Post said.
“Canada Post continues to monitor best practices and recommendations with respect to face coverings, and will update our requirements accordingly.”
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) National President Jan Simpson said the union is “concerned” that Canada Post is refusing to allow its members to wear N95 masks.
“Research on the new Omicron variant has established it is more transmissible through shared air than earlier variants,” he said in the statement.
“The union has asked Canada Post to provide N95 masks or suitable alternatives to all postal workers, and at the very least, allow those who’ve purchased their own N95 or KN95 masks to wear them. As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly, Canada Post Corporation should be doing everything in its power to protect postal workers, who continue to help people stay home and stay safe.”
From howitzers to heli-bombs: Canadian province fights rising avalanche risk
British Columbia is rolling out the big guns – literally – to control avalanches that are forcing closures on some major roads for the first time in decades as the Western Canadian province grapples with a snowier-than-usual winter.
B.C. was rocked in 2021 by extreme weather events, including a record-breaking heatwave, wildfires and unprecedented rains that washed out highways and cut off Vancouver, its main city and home to Canada’s busiest port, from the rest of the country.
The province, Canada’s third-largest by population, uses bombs thrown from helicopters, remote-triggered explosives, and a howitzer gun manned by Canada’s military to keep roads safe. But frequent closures for avalanche control are disrupting critical routes to Vancouver.
At the start of this month, B.C.’s alpine snowpack was 15% higher than average, according to the Weather Network channel.
Extreme winter weather, including November’s torrential precipitation, a deep freeze in late December and an early January thaw, has created weak layers in the snowpack, making steep mountain slopes more prone to avalanches that can release without warning onto valleys below.
“It’s been such a volatile fall and winter season so far, we have had rare ‘extreme’ avalanche warnings go out for parts of (B.C.’s) south coast in December and the risk is still considerable in the interior,” said Tyler Hamilton, a Weather Network meteorologist.
Avalanche control missions involve closing sections of highways while teams use explosives to pre-emptively trigger smaller slides, preventing the snowpack from becoming too deep and unstable.
This winter a section of Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon, 150 km (93 miles) northeast of Vancouver, needed avalanche control for the first time in 25 years, B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said.
Along Highway 99 north of Vancouver, avalanche control and risk-reduction activities are three times the seasonal average, with some slide paths producing avalanches big enough to hit the highway for the first time in more than a decade.
Avalanche control in Allison Pass further south on Highway 3, another key route connecting Vancouver to the rest of Canada, has also been above average, the ministry said.
All three highways were damaged by the November floods, and a busy avalanche control season is putting further strain on provincial resources. The Coquihalla Highway near Hope only reopened to regular traffic on Wednesday, and provincial authorities said record snow and avalanche risk had delayed repairs to Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon.
Further east in the province, avalanche teams in Rogers Pass, a rugged 40-km section of Highway 1 running beneath 135 slide paths in Glacier National Park, are dealing with nearly 30% more snowfall than usual and control missions are also above average.
Highway 1 is Canada’s main east-west artery and approximately 3,000 vehicles traverse Rogers Pass every day in winter. A major Canadian Pacific rail line runs parallel to the highway.
Avalanche control missions involve soldiers from the 1st Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, which is stationed in Rogers Pass in winter. They use a howitzer to fire shells packed with 4 kg (8.8 lbs) of explosives in the direction of loaded avalanche paths at 17 different locations along the highway.
“Our goal is to bring down as much snow as we can and bring the hazard down to a point where it’s safe to open the highway,” said Jim Phillips, acting avalanche operations coordinator for Parks Canada, which runs avalanche control in the national parks.
The Rogers Pass program has been running since the highway opened in 1961. Before that, CP trains crossing the Selkirk Mountains in winter ran a higher risk of deadly snow slides, including one that killed 62 railway workers in 1910.
So far this winter the team has fired 333 howitzer rounds, produced 197 controlled avalanches and closed the highway for 43 hours over seven separate days.
Phillips said his team also uses heli-bombing and remote-trigger systems to set off detonations, and spends C$600,000 ($480,346) a year on explosives alone.
“It’s a balancing act. You want to keep traffic moving and minimize closures, but also minimize risk to people using the transportation corridor,” he added.
And winter weather in Canada is far from over.
Avalanche control is typically needed until late April or early May, depending on the snowpack, and the Weather Network forecasts above average winter storm systems returning to B.C. in February and March.
“We’re still in a La Niña situation,” said the Weather Network’s Hamilton, referring to a weather pattern that tends to result in above-average precipitation and cold temperatures in B.C.
($1 = 1.2491 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Paul Simao)
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