COVID-19: Omicron strains basic services in Canada

From cities struggling to keep enough emergency responders on duty to staffing shortages hampering the Canadian food supply chain, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant is hampering the ability of public services to operate at full capacity across Canada.

The sudden surge of infections has spurred some government officials to begin developing contingency plans.

“We are planning for worst-case scenarios, up to and including illness rates of 50 to 60 per cent, so that we have made plans for that possible scenario,” Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters on Tuesday.

But other regions are already facing staffing problems.

Ontario’s Peel Regional Paramedic Services, for example, has been dealing with staff shortages as an increasing number of paramedics test positive for the virus or self-isolate due to exposure.

“There have been times when a Code Black has been declared, which means there is one or fewer ambulances available,” Paramedic Chief Peter Dundas wrote in a statement to CP24 on Wednesday.

Ottawa, Ont., has also been experiencing more frequent critical shortages of available paramedic units lately, citing record cases of COVID-19, offload delays at hospitals and call volumes returning to pre-pandemic levels.

On Jan. 5, Ontario hit the pause button on non-urgent surgeries as part of sweeping measures to reduce the impact of an anticipated rise in cases. An urgent care centre in Fort Erie, Ont., was temporarily closed Thursday after 354 staff members entered self-isolation, and 146 have tested positive for the virus since Dec. 21.

“This wave of the pandemic is beyond anything we have experienced,” Lynn Guerriero, president and CEO of Niagara Health, which runs the site, told The Canadian Press in a statement. “We have exhausted all options.”

Two-thirds of a team of firefighters in British Columbia was also sidelined this week. Thirteen of Prince Rupert’s 20 firefighters were either infected or in self-isolation. Several were able to come back to work the next day.

Police in Victoria and Winnipeg effectively declared states of emergency this week to re-deploy officers to help deal with staffing shortages due to COVID-19.

Turning to agriculture, absenteeism related to Omicron is already affecting parts of the food supply chain.

Poultry supplier Exceldor says staffing shortages forced the company to give thousands of chickens to other processors and it will have to euthanize thousands more. Mushroom farms are also struggling to survive, according to The Canadian Mushroom Growers’ Association.

Certain provinces, such as Ontario and Quebec, have reduced self-isolation periods for fully vaccinated individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, which may help bolster staff for businesses and other services.

With files from CTV News’s Josh Pringle, Colton Praill, Sean Davidson, Kendra Mangione, Alyse Kotyk, Scott Cunningham, Charles Lefebvre, Genevieve Beauchemin and Brooklyn Neustaeter, as well as CP24’s Kerrisa Wilson and The Canadian Press

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