Many B.C. businesses could soon be dealing with major staffing shortages due to the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, health officials warned Tuesday.
With unprecedented levels of transmission occurring in communities, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry urged business owners to start putting together contingency plans so they can keep operating if a significant number of employees have to call in sick.
“We need to anticipate that as many as a third of your workforce at any one time may become ill with COVID-19,” Henry said at a news conference. “We need to adapt businesses so we can operate at these reduced numbers.”
Case numbers have repeatedly broken all-time records in recent weeks, even with testing capacity consistently overwhelmed, to the point that officials estimate actual transmission could be up to five times higher.
The speed at which the variant is spreading, combined with its significantly shorter incubation period, has made effective contact-tracing impossible, Henry said. Individuals who test positive have been asked to shoulder the responsibility of letting people close to them know they might have been exposed.
“At this point, most people in B.C. likely have a friend or family member or colleague who has been infected with the Omicron variant,” Henry said. “In the tug-of-war of transmission, Omicron has the advantage.”
Officials’ prediction for what the spread will mean for businesses echoes a warning issued last week by Protect our Province B.C., an independent group of doctors and researchers, which has called for a three-week circuit breaker to better contain Omicron.
Henry said the government is not imposing any more COVID-19 restrictions yet, only urging businesses to ready themselves for potential disruptions.
“Whether you’re a private company, a school, a frontline business or a health-care site, now is the time that we have to prepare,” she added.
“It’s not about public health orders and us telling you what to do, this is about activating all of those layers of protection available for your business, in your situation, to prevent you from having to shut down because you don’t have enough people to operate.”
To limit the impact of potential outbreaks, businesses have also been told to bring back their COVID-19 safety plans, which might have included measures such as capacity limits, Plexiglas barriers and regular hand-washing for staff.
Henry said employees should also wear three-layer masks, and owners should ensure the front and back areas of stores are as spaced out as possible.
“Stagger shifts, stagger start times and breaks, making sure that staff are not all eating lunch in a small, unventilated lunchroom together,” the provincial health officer said.
The arrival of the Omicron variant has changed many facets of the pandemic, and not all of them have been bad. Henry has said that many people are recovering faster, particularly if they are vaccinated, which recently led to the province reducing the minimum period of self-isolation to five days for fully immunized B.C. residents. The unvaccinated must still self-isolate for at least 10 days after catching COVID-19.
The impact of Omicron on hospitalizations is still not entirely clear, according to officials, but Henry said the province recently began conducting a “deep dive” on recent admissions to gain a better understanding. So far, hospital numbers have not mirrored B.C.’s rapid spike in infections, though there has been a surge in serious cases in recent days.
“We are seeing the rates of hospitalizations and those in critical care slowly creeping up,” Henry said.
As of the last update from health officials on Friday, there were 220 COVID-19 patients in hospital – an increase of 27 from two days prior, but well below B.C.’s all-time high of 515 recorded back in April.
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