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Pandemic response must “shift gears” as Omicron overwhelms capacity: Young Hoon

Public health authorities will have to scale back approach to case, contact management, Northwestern Health Unit head says.
Dr. Kit Young Hoon Northwestern Health Unit
Dr. Kit Young Hoon, medical officer of health for the Northwestern Health Unit. (Submitted photo)

THUNDER BAY – Skyrocketing COVID-19 case counts spurred by the Omicron variant will force public health authorities to dramatically reshape their approach to the pandemic, says the head of the Northwestern Health Unit.

“We expect the pandemic response to shift gears over the next few weeks and months,” medical officer of health Dr. Kit Young Hoon told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. “What’s now become clear is this is a different variant… so using the same strategies and the same approach we did last time would just leave us in a situation of chaos.”

Mirroring provincial trends, the NWHU’s active case count nearly doubled over the past week, reaching 220 on Wednesday – a phenomenon Young Hoon attributed to holiday gatherings, as well as the rise of Omicron.

The surge is already causing delays in how long it takes for those who test positive to receive a follow-up call from public health, she said.

“I think one of the things that’s quite clear from the high case numbers is that we can't maintain case and contact management as we've done in the past,” she said. “With this level of cases, we can’t do that individual call to every single case, that follow-up at the mid-point, and then at the end-point of the isolation period. That would be impossible – there’s just not enough people.”

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit announced changes to case and contact management for similar reasons on Tuesday, the same day Ontario’s chief medical officer of health postponed a press conference in which he was expected to address the issue.

Young Hoon said the NWHU would wait for provincial guidance before making major changes.

She expressed confidence that those who test positive or are identified as close contacts can navigate public health guidance with less support from overwhelmed staff.

“The public is intelligent – they'll know how to follow advice based on information that might be provided to them in writing, or stuff they can read on our website,” she said. “That might be an example of where the approach needs to shift because of the Omicron variant. Again, I think we’re looking towards the province for some strategic direction on this, and I’m expecting that to come.”

The rise of Omicron also means case numbers will be a less reliable measure of the pandemic’s severity, she said.

“At this point, I think it’s not about the case numbers, it’s about looking at the overall impact on society… and things like hospitalization rates and ICU admissions.”

Those metrics have remained steady amid rising case numbers in the NWHU, with five residents in hospital with the virus as of Wednesday. Ontario has seen its COVID-19 hospitalizations trend upward only slightly in recent weeks, while ICU occupancy has essentially remained flat.

Given the typical lag between increases in cases and in hospitalizations, Young Hoon said she’s not quite ready to breathe a sigh of relief.

“I’d be monitoring it for about two or three [more] weeks to really see what that impact might be, and then maybe I can start feeling a bit more comfortable,” she said.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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