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COVID-19 deaths in N.S. demonstrate severe outcomes of ‘mild’ Omicron

Experts weigh in on whether calling fourth-wave variant mild was a mistake

2 min read
caption There are 11 people in intensive care in Nova Scotia with COVID-19.
Lane Harrison

Nova Scotia has recorded 29 deaths due to COVID-19 in the last 16 days of a fourth-wave outbreak. 

That’s the most the province has experienced in a 16-day period since the outbreak at Northwood Halifax during the first wave of the pandemic in early 2020.

Deaths have also increased across Canada. Deaths increased by 85 per cent nationally during the week of Jan. 12 compared to the previous week, according to the weekly epidemiology report released by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The number of reported deaths have been increasing since mid-December 2021, the report said. 

Some of the deaths across Canada may have been prevented if the Omicron variant hadn’t been framed as a mild virus by Canada’s provincial governments, according to Susanne Gulliver, a senior epidemiologist at NewLab Clinical Research in St. John’s, N.L.

“When you have four times as many people infected, the actual number of deaths go up. And people are forgetting that,” said Gulliver. 

“If it’s more infectious, and it spreads more easily and more quickly, then it’s actually not milder, because you’re having significantly more people infected, which ups the potential for hospitalization.” 

In a December news release, Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said “with high case numbers, even a very small percentage with severe illness could overload our hospitals.” 

But earlier in the release, Premier Tim Houston said restrictions were necessary to protect hospitals “even if illness remains mild.” 

Gulliver said, “The general public hears ‘Oh, less severe, milder.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, it’s not that big a deal.’ ” 

Susan Kirkland, head of the department of community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie University, said she’s not sure if she agrees with this assessment of the situation. 

“I’m also not sure that I 100 per cent understand individual behaviours,” Kirkland said. “But I do believe that people understand the very high transmissibility of Omicron. And I think that people have responded to that.”

Because the Omicron variant is so transmissible, Kirkland said, that “means that many more people are going to get it no matter what.” 

With such a high number of infections, there is a proportion of people who will experience severe illness and hospitalization, she said. 

Kirkland said Omicron could be characterized as mild because “the actual infection for most individuals is less severe than what we’ve seen in previous infections.” 

At the province’s COVID-19 briefing on Jan. 26, Strang said, “Most Nova Scotians who died during this wave are primarily older people with underlying health conditions.”

At an earlier briefing on Jan. 19, Strang said the elderly have a higher likelihood of needing intensive care after contracting COVID-19 because their immune systems are weakened by their age or they already have chronic health conditions. 

Kirkland said the province can do more to protect vulnerable populations such as the elderly, specifically by easing the strain on long-term care and acute care facilities. 

“That is going to be with us for a very long time. And how we rectify that is, you know, probably one of the most serious things we’re up against,” she said.  

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About the author

Lane Harrison

Lane Harrison is a fourth-year multimedia journalist from Toronto, Ontario. He works as the editor-in-chief of the Dalhousie Gazette, Dalhousie's...

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