Note from Michael, Jan. 4, 2022 | Omicron science update

From the desk of Dr. Michael Gardam, Health PEI CEO

Hi Everybody:

I thought I’d provide a bit of an epidemiology and science update for those of you looking for what’s new in the world of Omicron. Several provinces have seen a dramatic rise in hospitalizations over the Christmas holidays. This was expected given the rapid spread of Omicron and the fact that it can cause infections in those immune to other variants. 

In keeping with experience in other countries, however, is that, so far, we have not seen a similar rise in ICU admission or deaths. These normally lag hospitalizations so it could just be that it is too soon for us to expect to see an increase, but clearly Omicron is also less deadly on a case-by-case basis than Delta. 

PEI has had hospitalizations as well but thus far we have been able to handle these without getting into trouble or having to significantly scale back services.

I expect we will see more admissions over the coming 1-2 weeks and the Emergency Operations Centre continues to meet twice daily to plan for this eventuality.

Our bigger issue has been staff infections and this has been the number one problem across Canada. The vast majority of our infections continue to occur in the community i.e. not at work.  We have got to get over the myth that health care facilities are where people catch COVID.  This is simply not true in the circumstances we are in now. Keeping your circle of contacts very small (10 or less as advised by CPHO) and following all public health guidelines in the community as well as at work are key to avoiding infections. We know there will continue to be infections given the nature of Omicron and community spread, but the more we can slow it down, the better. 

Much has been made about how infectious Omicron is. Recent studies suggest that this is due to the fact that it has a much wider audience it can infect (essentially the whole population since vaccination does not protect against infection) rather than anything different about how the virus spreads. In fact, in immune populations, Omicron is no more transmissible than Delta. 

With transmission dynamics being the same, I continue to support the use of medical masks (double them up if you can) over N95 respirators for most situations, especially when worn in the community. 

Without training in how to wear an N95 and proper fit testing, I suspect many people who have bought these will not wear them appropriately, not to mention find them hard to comply with. I have N95s at home for drywalling but will be heading out to get my booster shot tomorrow sporting two medical masks!

If Omicron is able to infect those who have had two vaccines almost as easily as the unvaccinated, then how can we say that the vaccines are working? It is very clear that the Omicron spike protein looks different enough from earlier variants, and that it is able to escape antibodies against those earlier variants, including those made as a result of vaccination. This allows the virus to locally infect in the nasopharynx and begin to replicate. But our immune response is also made up of cellular immunity involving T-cells and it is clear that despite Omicron being different, it is not different enough as T-cells are able to prevent the infection from moving further. So vaccination doesn’t stop infection but it does largely stop progression into more serious illness. Getting a booster dose results in many more antibodies which seem to partially overcome the mismatch and thus results in a decreased risk of infection.

Finally, the data from larger provinces show that the exponential spread of Omicron is rapidly decreasing: two weeks ago 1 person spread on average to 4 people, but as of December 31st in Ontario, this was down to 1 person spreading on average to 1.5 people. Case numbers are still going up but the rate of increase is slowing and it is predicted by sometime next week that the case numbers will likely start to fall. 

Again this is consistent with other countries where the Omicron spike in cases was shockingly fast but also came down quickly.  It is a bit difficult to determine where we are in PEI as our data are much more unstable due to a much smaller population; however it is simple math that what goes up quickly will come down quickly as the virus runs out of people to infect.

Please send questions, comments, or submissions for these notes to, subject line “Notes for Michael”.

Last Updated
Mon, 01/04/2021 - 16:17