COVID-19: Omicron strains basic services in Canada

From cities struggling to keep enough emergency responders on duty to staff shortages crippling 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 increase in the number of infections has prompted some government officials to begin making contingency plans.

“We’re planning for worst-case scenarios, up to and including disease rates of 50 to 60 percent, so we’ve made plans for that potential scenario,” Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters on Tuesday.

But other regions are already facing staffing problems.

For example, Bell Regional Paramedic Services in Ontario is dealing with a staff shortage as an increasing number of paramedics have tested positive for the virus or are self-isolating due to exposure.

“There have been times when the black code has been announced, meaning there is one or fewer ambulances available,” Chief Paramedic Peter Dundas wrote in a statement to CP24 on Wednesday.

Ottawa, Ontario, is also experiencing severe recurring shortages of available first-aid units recently, citing record cases of COVID-19, hospital discharge delays, and a return of call volumes to pre-pandemic levels.

On January 5, Ontario pressed the pause button on non-urgent surgeries as part of sweeping measures to reduce the impact of an expected surge in cases. An urgent care center in Fort Erie, Ontario, was temporarily closed Thursday after 354 employees went into self-isolation, and 146 tested positive for the virus since December 21.

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

Two-thirds of BC firefighters were sidelined this week. Thirteen of Prince Robert’s 20 firefighters have either become infected or are in self-isolation. Several of them were able to return to work the next day.

Police in Victoria and Winnipeg effectively declared a state of emergency this week to redeploy officers to help deal with staff shortages due to COVID-19.

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

Poultry supplier Exceldor says a staff shortage has forced the company to give thousands of chickens to other processors and it will have to kill 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 test positive for COVID-19, which may help support employees for businesses and other services.

With files from CTV News’ Josh Pringle, Colton Brill, Sean Davidson, Kendra Mangionni, Alice Kotek, Scott Cunningham, Charles Lefebvre, Genevieve Bushmin and Brooklyn Newstetter, as well as CB24’s Kerissa Wilson and the Canadian Press.

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