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B.C. Omicron cases have yet to peak, warn independent analysts

The modelling group says COVID-19 hospitalizations will likely crest at around 2,000 concurrent patients in February, which due to restrictions, is half the group’s earlier estimate
covid-19-burnaby testing
Vehicles at the Burnaby COVID-19 testing site next to BCIT.

Restrictions have helped slow the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in British Columbia, but cases have not yet peaked, according to a new report from the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group released Wednesday.

Omicron’s daily growth rate has been halved from 20 per cent to 10 per cent by public health measures, the group of independent academics and experts estimated,  based on case data and recent hospital cases among those over 70.

The group forecasts that as a result, hospitalizations will likely crest at around 2,000 concurrent patients in February. That’s half the group’s estimate earlier this month for the likely peak, a reflection of extended restrictions.

“With the reduced growth rate, the projected peak in hospital demands is lower and delayed until February,  if we continue with current restrictions,” said the report.

The group says the true daily B.C. case rate is likely close to 13,000, nearly eight times higher than the number reported by the province late last week.

The new analysis challenges provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s assertion that Omicron infections have peaked in B.C. and that hospitalizations will peak by the end of this week.

There are currently 895 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the province, smashing the previous peak of 515 in April last year.

Hospitals are already being pushed to the brink with many health-care workers ill with COVID-19 themselves, as The Tyee reported last week.

Henry said last Friday that while testing was overwhelmed and running at capacity, the positivity rate was sustainably trending down, and wastewater data also indicated a decline in cases in many parts of B.C.

“This gives us more confidence that… at least in terms of transmission in the community, we’ve reached that peak and started our downward trajectory,” she said.

But a number of experts have criticized B.C.’s testing data as essentially “useless” at this point, saying the province is “flying blind” into this fifth wave.

“My analysis of the data is saying that it’s too early to say that we’re really past the peak,” Sally Otto of the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group told the CBC Friday.

“The overall drop in case numbers merely  reflects the fact that people were asked not to test, and a lot of  people can no longer afford to wait in line for hours to get tested  because they are back at work or back at school.”

Contrary to modelling presented by the province on Friday, the group reported cases are rising in all age groups. That includes people over 70 who are most likely to require hospital care and impact available staffing and beds.

The province’s drop in reported cases likely reflects shifting testing policies, with people under 70  discouraged from testing, the report says. Provincial data shows cases are still rising among people over 70.

The modelling used case and hospitalization data from the United States to confirm the likely hospitalization trend in B.C., noting the province’s data is released irregularly.

The group stressed the importance of maintaining current restrictions in order to ensure peak hospital demand is as low as possible. 

On Tuesday, Henry said only gyms could reopen starting Thursday as she extended remaining public health orders on events, gatherings, bars and nightclubs until Feb. 16.

And while the independent models show public health measures have helped blunt the toll of Omicron on B.C.  hospitals, the group was clear that there is still a great degree of uncertainty about B.C.’s pandemic trajectory due to poor data collection and disclosure. 

“Access to accurate, timely, and consistent daily hospital admission data would allow for better projections of health-care demands,” said the report. “We ask B.C. to make such data  public.”