Overwhelmed by Omicron: Five Ontarians tell their stories

News Jan 15, 2022 by Grant LaFleche Standard Reporter

It felt like there was light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. The Delta variant had been suppressed due to the vaccine rollout. And another dark winter was not expected.

Until Omicron.

The new vastly more infectious variant, capable of partially evading immunity from vaccines and previous infections alike, rolled over the planet. The most vulnerable were once again at heightened risk. Children, the most resistant to the novel coronavirus, were now getting sick in larger numbers.

Schools closed. Restaurants were shuttered. Infection rates soared and hospitals were overrun.

Ontarians — from parents to teachers to restaurateurs to doctors — are left grappling with unknowns, waiting for the punishing Omicron wave to release its grip. Here are five of their stories.

A mother’s anguish

In the Omicron world, even the tiniest of indiscretions or momentary wavering of attention can come with a cost.

Alana Bostock paid that price when her 18-month-old son, Theo, burning up with a 40C fever, lay limp in her arms.

The boy had COVID-19. And she knew she probably gave it to him.

The Hamilton saleswoman is fully vaccinated as are her coworkers. Her office had a vaccine mandate. Everyone felt safe and trusted each other, she said, so they sometimes did not wear their masks indoors.

“I guess I could have got it from anywhere, given how infectious it is now, but I think that may have been it,” said Bostock, who lost her sense of taste and smell as a result of the infection. She became so tired she could not get out of bed.

Her husband Markus was also infected. Markus had the mildest of symptoms. But Theo, who was too young to be vaccinated, was hit hard.

“Theo just woke up and was miserable and awful and coughing and sneezing,” she said. “By that night, he was just limp in my arms.”

Markus took Theo to McMaster’s Children’s Hospital, where the COVID infection was confirmed.

“The guilt that you feel as a mom who’s supposed to protect your kids and knowing I potentially probably brought this home. That’s significant,” she said. “I just kind of sat there like sobbing and just talking to my mom and not knowing what was going to happen to them.”

After a difficult week of being in pain, Theo has recovered as has his father. Bostock says she still has a cough.

A teacher fears for her students

Anne Marie Butters wants her students back in school. She knows it is better for them than only learning over a screen.

Yet she fears when schools reopen for in-person learning on Monday they may become links in a chain of infection that will make the COVID-19 pandemic worse.

“Those kids are going to get sick. They’re going to bring it home to their families,” said Butters. “I worry that opening schools right now is just going to make everything worse.”

She knows Omicron does not care about rules or precautions. You can do everything right and still get infected.

“In our family, we tested, we were super careful. We followed the rules, tested Christmas Day. Negative. We went to visit our family. And then the next morning I had a scratchy throat. Tested again. Positive,” said Butters. “I feel like the tests give people a bit of a false sense of security because you can test negative one day, then you can test the next day and be positive.”

Butters, who recovered quickly from COVID-19, frets that throwing school doors open next week may serve to exacerbate the Omicron wave, which is overwhelming hospitals and sickening children at rates well beyond the ability of previous surges.

“I really want the kids to be back in school. (But) I worry about having the kids back at school at this time before the hospitals have found their footing,” said Butters, whose family members were also ill over Christmas.

As stressful as the previous variants were for teachers and students, Butters said it felt like there was a plan, however imperfect, to limit the spread of the virus.

Now she feels like the viral train is free to barrel down on teachers and students.

“There is no plan for what to do when there are not enough staff to keep the children safely separated,” said Butters, who called the idea of mixing student cohorts in the face of staffing shortages “terrifying.”

‘This virus is no joke’

Even teachers who have spent the pandemic instructing students online are not immune to the impact of Omicron, including staffing issues.

“I’ve been dealing with COVID since Dec. 27,” said Samanta Browne, a virtual teacher of Grades 1 and 2 students at R.J. Lang Elementary and Middle School in North York. “So right now there is a supply teacher filling in and there are not a lot of them.”

Browne believes she contracted the virus from family, and the resulting fatigue and impact on her throat make it impossible to work.

“I can only talk for about 15 minutes at a time,” said Browne, her voice cracking and becoming raspy during an interview. “I think I am improving slowly, but there is no way I could teach a whole day.”

As more teachers have to isolate because of infections, staffing problems become more acute. Browne said virtual learning can be effective, but a teacher needs the skills to do it well. Substitute teachers may not have the experience.

“When you invested in what you do and you understand the tools that help the job to become more user friendly, then the kids are benefiting. So it just depends on the teacher,” she said. “But I can tell you this virus is no joke. Some people are saying it is a joke, but it’s not and they don’t respect what teachers are going through.”

Restaurant manager struggles to cope

Two hundred kilometres away in London, Ont., kitchen manager Michael Beirnes knows his employees are carrying a heavy load.

Faced with another pandemic lockdown, he’s laid off half of his staff at Fellini Koolinis, a popular local eatery. Some of those who remain are off sick. Others are quitting for jobs that leave them less vulnerable to the whims of the virus.

“Staff is losing morale, too, because their life has been like, ‘Let’s get a couple of weeks back at work, then we’re in lockdown again. They are not sure what’s going on,” said Beirnes. “The government benefits that they’re getting this time isn’t like it was last time, too. So a lot of us will be struggling to pay our bills.”

Beirnes closely watched the rise of Omicron and did his best to prepare by managing kitchen orders and freezing some supplies. But there is no getting around the financial losses of the lockdown; the restaurant had just started to recover from when Omicron struck.

It’s not just anemic government supports that are the problem, Beirnes said. Those refusing to play their part in fighting the virus are a long-term issue.

“We can actually get back to normal faster if everyone would actually go out and get vaccinated, wear a mask and stay away from people,” he said. “You have all these people that are against the vaccinations. They’re the ones that are driving the numbers up and it seems they really don’t care.”

Health-care workers bear the brunt

Dr. Lorraine Jensen’s hasn’t had a chance to catch her breath since the first COVID-19 patients arrived at Niagara Health’s hospitals in 2020.

Even when the patient load under Delta began to decline, the virus followed her home. Everyone in her household — except Jensen — contracted Delta, a fact she attributes to receiving a booster shot a few weeks before.

No sooner had her family recovered then Omicron arrived.

“I would not say that I have fully recovered at any point during the pandemic. I think burnout in the general population and in health care especially is a very real issue,” said Jensen, chief of medicine for Niagara Health.

It was happening all over again. The hospital was overrun with COVID-19 patients. The ICUs became filled with two types of people — the oldest and most vulnerable, who are at high risk despite vaccines, and the unvaccinated.

Seventeen Niagara residents with COVID-19 have died in the last week. Nearly 450 doctors, nurses and staff at Niagara Health are now isolated because of COVID-19 infections and the hospital has suspended its vaccine mandate to keep the system running. It closed an urgent care centre in Fort Erie to redeploy staff.

“If you would have told me last year during the wave of Delta in the spring that this was going to happen now, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Jensen. “I really thought that we would be in a better position. It is disappointing. I think it is easy to feel overwhelmed.”

Knowing things will likely get worse before they get better, Jensen said all hospital staff can do is lean on each other until they get through the storm.

And that storm will end, she says. Vaccines, which still protect against serious disease and natural immunity borne of infection, will eventually put Omicron in a corner.

“There is hope. We have therapeutics now. We have vaccines. I think there will be updated vaccines based on new variants and those are already in development. And so I do not think that it’s a hopeless situation at all.”

Grant LaFleche is a St. Catharines-based investigative reporter with the Standard. Reach him via email: grant.lafleche@niagaradailies.com

Overwhelmed by Omicron: Five Ontarians tell their stories

News Jan 15, 2022 by Grant LaFleche Standard Reporter

It felt like there was light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. The Delta variant had been suppressed due to the vaccine rollout. And another dark winter was not expected.

Until Omicron.

The new vastly more infectious variant, capable of partially evading immunity from vaccines and previous infections alike, rolled over the planet. The most vulnerable were once again at heightened risk. Children, the most resistant to the novel coronavirus, were now getting sick in larger numbers.

Schools closed. Restaurants were shuttered. Infection rates soared and hospitals were overrun.

Ontarians — from parents to teachers to restaurateurs to doctors — are left grappling with unknowns, waiting for the punishing Omicron wave to release its grip. Here are five of their stories.

A mother’s anguish

In the Omicron world, even the tiniest of indiscretions or momentary wavering of attention can come with a cost.

Alana Bostock paid that price when her 18-month-old son, Theo, burning up with a 40C fever, lay limp in her arms.

The boy had COVID-19. And she knew she probably gave it to him.

The Hamilton saleswoman is fully vaccinated as are her coworkers. Her office had a vaccine mandate. Everyone felt safe and trusted each other, she said, so they sometimes did not wear their masks indoors.

“I guess I could have got it from anywhere, given how infectious it is now, but I think that may have been it,” said Bostock, who lost her sense of taste and smell as a result of the infection. She became so tired she could not get out of bed.

Her husband Markus was also infected. Markus had the mildest of symptoms. But Theo, who was too young to be vaccinated, was hit hard.

“Theo just woke up and was miserable and awful and coughing and sneezing,” she said. “By that night, he was just limp in my arms.”

Markus took Theo to McMaster’s Children’s Hospital, where the COVID infection was confirmed.

“The guilt that you feel as a mom who’s supposed to protect your kids and knowing I potentially probably brought this home. That’s significant,” she said. “I just kind of sat there like sobbing and just talking to my mom and not knowing what was going to happen to them.”

After a difficult week of being in pain, Theo has recovered as has his father. Bostock says she still has a cough.

A teacher fears for her students

Anne Marie Butters wants her students back in school. She knows it is better for them than only learning over a screen.

Yet she fears when schools reopen for in-person learning on Monday they may become links in a chain of infection that will make the COVID-19 pandemic worse.

“Those kids are going to get sick. They’re going to bring it home to their families,” said Butters. “I worry that opening schools right now is just going to make everything worse.”

She knows Omicron does not care about rules or precautions. You can do everything right and still get infected.

“In our family, we tested, we were super careful. We followed the rules, tested Christmas Day. Negative. We went to visit our family. And then the next morning I had a scratchy throat. Tested again. Positive,” said Butters. “I feel like the tests give people a bit of a false sense of security because you can test negative one day, then you can test the next day and be positive.”

Butters, who recovered quickly from COVID-19, frets that throwing school doors open next week may serve to exacerbate the Omicron wave, which is overwhelming hospitals and sickening children at rates well beyond the ability of previous surges.

“I really want the kids to be back in school. (But) I worry about having the kids back at school at this time before the hospitals have found their footing,” said Butters, whose family members were also ill over Christmas.

As stressful as the previous variants were for teachers and students, Butters said it felt like there was a plan, however imperfect, to limit the spread of the virus.

Now she feels like the viral train is free to barrel down on teachers and students.

“There is no plan for what to do when there are not enough staff to keep the children safely separated,” said Butters, who called the idea of mixing student cohorts in the face of staffing shortages “terrifying.”

‘This virus is no joke’

Even teachers who have spent the pandemic instructing students online are not immune to the impact of Omicron, including staffing issues.

“I’ve been dealing with COVID since Dec. 27,” said Samanta Browne, a virtual teacher of Grades 1 and 2 students at R.J. Lang Elementary and Middle School in North York. “So right now there is a supply teacher filling in and there are not a lot of them.”

Browne believes she contracted the virus from family, and the resulting fatigue and impact on her throat make it impossible to work.

“I can only talk for about 15 minutes at a time,” said Browne, her voice cracking and becoming raspy during an interview. “I think I am improving slowly, but there is no way I could teach a whole day.”

As more teachers have to isolate because of infections, staffing problems become more acute. Browne said virtual learning can be effective, but a teacher needs the skills to do it well. Substitute teachers may not have the experience.

“When you invested in what you do and you understand the tools that help the job to become more user friendly, then the kids are benefiting. So it just depends on the teacher,” she said. “But I can tell you this virus is no joke. Some people are saying it is a joke, but it’s not and they don’t respect what teachers are going through.”

Restaurant manager struggles to cope

Two hundred kilometres away in London, Ont., kitchen manager Michael Beirnes knows his employees are carrying a heavy load.

Faced with another pandemic lockdown, he’s laid off half of his staff at Fellini Koolinis, a popular local eatery. Some of those who remain are off sick. Others are quitting for jobs that leave them less vulnerable to the whims of the virus.

“Staff is losing morale, too, because their life has been like, ‘Let’s get a couple of weeks back at work, then we’re in lockdown again. They are not sure what’s going on,” said Beirnes. “The government benefits that they’re getting this time isn’t like it was last time, too. So a lot of us will be struggling to pay our bills.”

Beirnes closely watched the rise of Omicron and did his best to prepare by managing kitchen orders and freezing some supplies. But there is no getting around the financial losses of the lockdown; the restaurant had just started to recover from when Omicron struck.

It’s not just anemic government supports that are the problem, Beirnes said. Those refusing to play their part in fighting the virus are a long-term issue.

“We can actually get back to normal faster if everyone would actually go out and get vaccinated, wear a mask and stay away from people,” he said. “You have all these people that are against the vaccinations. They’re the ones that are driving the numbers up and it seems they really don’t care.”

Health-care workers bear the brunt

Dr. Lorraine Jensen’s hasn’t had a chance to catch her breath since the first COVID-19 patients arrived at Niagara Health’s hospitals in 2020.

Even when the patient load under Delta began to decline, the virus followed her home. Everyone in her household — except Jensen — contracted Delta, a fact she attributes to receiving a booster shot a few weeks before.

No sooner had her family recovered then Omicron arrived.

“I would not say that I have fully recovered at any point during the pandemic. I think burnout in the general population and in health care especially is a very real issue,” said Jensen, chief of medicine for Niagara Health.

It was happening all over again. The hospital was overrun with COVID-19 patients. The ICUs became filled with two types of people — the oldest and most vulnerable, who are at high risk despite vaccines, and the unvaccinated.

Seventeen Niagara residents with COVID-19 have died in the last week. Nearly 450 doctors, nurses and staff at Niagara Health are now isolated because of COVID-19 infections and the hospital has suspended its vaccine mandate to keep the system running. It closed an urgent care centre in Fort Erie to redeploy staff.

“If you would have told me last year during the wave of Delta in the spring that this was going to happen now, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Jensen. “I really thought that we would be in a better position. It is disappointing. I think it is easy to feel overwhelmed.”

Knowing things will likely get worse before they get better, Jensen said all hospital staff can do is lean on each other until they get through the storm.

And that storm will end, she says. Vaccines, which still protect against serious disease and natural immunity borne of infection, will eventually put Omicron in a corner.

“There is hope. We have therapeutics now. We have vaccines. I think there will be updated vaccines based on new variants and those are already in development. And so I do not think that it’s a hopeless situation at all.”

Grant LaFleche is a St. Catharines-based investigative reporter with the Standard. Reach him via email: grant.lafleche@niagaradailies.com

Overwhelmed by Omicron: Five Ontarians tell their stories

News Jan 15, 2022 by Grant LaFleche Standard Reporter

It felt like there was light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. The Delta variant had been suppressed due to the vaccine rollout. And another dark winter was not expected.

Until Omicron.

The new vastly more infectious variant, capable of partially evading immunity from vaccines and previous infections alike, rolled over the planet. The most vulnerable were once again at heightened risk. Children, the most resistant to the novel coronavirus, were now getting sick in larger numbers.

Schools closed. Restaurants were shuttered. Infection rates soared and hospitals were overrun.

Ontarians — from parents to teachers to restaurateurs to doctors — are left grappling with unknowns, waiting for the punishing Omicron wave to release its grip. Here are five of their stories.

A mother’s anguish

In the Omicron world, even the tiniest of indiscretions or momentary wavering of attention can come with a cost.

Alana Bostock paid that price when her 18-month-old son, Theo, burning up with a 40C fever, lay limp in her arms.

The boy had COVID-19. And she knew she probably gave it to him.

The Hamilton saleswoman is fully vaccinated as are her coworkers. Her office had a vaccine mandate. Everyone felt safe and trusted each other, she said, so they sometimes did not wear their masks indoors.

“I guess I could have got it from anywhere, given how infectious it is now, but I think that may have been it,” said Bostock, who lost her sense of taste and smell as a result of the infection. She became so tired she could not get out of bed.

Her husband Markus was also infected. Markus had the mildest of symptoms. But Theo, who was too young to be vaccinated, was hit hard.

“Theo just woke up and was miserable and awful and coughing and sneezing,” she said. “By that night, he was just limp in my arms.”

Markus took Theo to McMaster’s Children’s Hospital, where the COVID infection was confirmed.

“The guilt that you feel as a mom who’s supposed to protect your kids and knowing I potentially probably brought this home. That’s significant,” she said. “I just kind of sat there like sobbing and just talking to my mom and not knowing what was going to happen to them.”

After a difficult week of being in pain, Theo has recovered as has his father. Bostock says she still has a cough.

A teacher fears for her students

Anne Marie Butters wants her students back in school. She knows it is better for them than only learning over a screen.

Yet she fears when schools reopen for in-person learning on Monday they may become links in a chain of infection that will make the COVID-19 pandemic worse.

“Those kids are going to get sick. They’re going to bring it home to their families,” said Butters. “I worry that opening schools right now is just going to make everything worse.”

She knows Omicron does not care about rules or precautions. You can do everything right and still get infected.

“In our family, we tested, we were super careful. We followed the rules, tested Christmas Day. Negative. We went to visit our family. And then the next morning I had a scratchy throat. Tested again. Positive,” said Butters. “I feel like the tests give people a bit of a false sense of security because you can test negative one day, then you can test the next day and be positive.”

Butters, who recovered quickly from COVID-19, frets that throwing school doors open next week may serve to exacerbate the Omicron wave, which is overwhelming hospitals and sickening children at rates well beyond the ability of previous surges.

“I really want the kids to be back in school. (But) I worry about having the kids back at school at this time before the hospitals have found their footing,” said Butters, whose family members were also ill over Christmas.

As stressful as the previous variants were for teachers and students, Butters said it felt like there was a plan, however imperfect, to limit the spread of the virus.

Now she feels like the viral train is free to barrel down on teachers and students.

“There is no plan for what to do when there are not enough staff to keep the children safely separated,” said Butters, who called the idea of mixing student cohorts in the face of staffing shortages “terrifying.”

‘This virus is no joke’

Even teachers who have spent the pandemic instructing students online are not immune to the impact of Omicron, including staffing issues.

“I’ve been dealing with COVID since Dec. 27,” said Samanta Browne, a virtual teacher of Grades 1 and 2 students at R.J. Lang Elementary and Middle School in North York. “So right now there is a supply teacher filling in and there are not a lot of them.”

Browne believes she contracted the virus from family, and the resulting fatigue and impact on her throat make it impossible to work.

“I can only talk for about 15 minutes at a time,” said Browne, her voice cracking and becoming raspy during an interview. “I think I am improving slowly, but there is no way I could teach a whole day.”

As more teachers have to isolate because of infections, staffing problems become more acute. Browne said virtual learning can be effective, but a teacher needs the skills to do it well. Substitute teachers may not have the experience.

“When you invested in what you do and you understand the tools that help the job to become more user friendly, then the kids are benefiting. So it just depends on the teacher,” she said. “But I can tell you this virus is no joke. Some people are saying it is a joke, but it’s not and they don’t respect what teachers are going through.”

Restaurant manager struggles to cope

Two hundred kilometres away in London, Ont., kitchen manager Michael Beirnes knows his employees are carrying a heavy load.

Faced with another pandemic lockdown, he’s laid off half of his staff at Fellini Koolinis, a popular local eatery. Some of those who remain are off sick. Others are quitting for jobs that leave them less vulnerable to the whims of the virus.

“Staff is losing morale, too, because their life has been like, ‘Let’s get a couple of weeks back at work, then we’re in lockdown again. They are not sure what’s going on,” said Beirnes. “The government benefits that they’re getting this time isn’t like it was last time, too. So a lot of us will be struggling to pay our bills.”

Beirnes closely watched the rise of Omicron and did his best to prepare by managing kitchen orders and freezing some supplies. But there is no getting around the financial losses of the lockdown; the restaurant had just started to recover from when Omicron struck.

It’s not just anemic government supports that are the problem, Beirnes said. Those refusing to play their part in fighting the virus are a long-term issue.

“We can actually get back to normal faster if everyone would actually go out and get vaccinated, wear a mask and stay away from people,” he said. “You have all these people that are against the vaccinations. They’re the ones that are driving the numbers up and it seems they really don’t care.”

Health-care workers bear the brunt

Dr. Lorraine Jensen’s hasn’t had a chance to catch her breath since the first COVID-19 patients arrived at Niagara Health’s hospitals in 2020.

Even when the patient load under Delta began to decline, the virus followed her home. Everyone in her household — except Jensen — contracted Delta, a fact she attributes to receiving a booster shot a few weeks before.

No sooner had her family recovered then Omicron arrived.

“I would not say that I have fully recovered at any point during the pandemic. I think burnout in the general population and in health care especially is a very real issue,” said Jensen, chief of medicine for Niagara Health.

It was happening all over again. The hospital was overrun with COVID-19 patients. The ICUs became filled with two types of people — the oldest and most vulnerable, who are at high risk despite vaccines, and the unvaccinated.

Seventeen Niagara residents with COVID-19 have died in the last week. Nearly 450 doctors, nurses and staff at Niagara Health are now isolated because of COVID-19 infections and the hospital has suspended its vaccine mandate to keep the system running. It closed an urgent care centre in Fort Erie to redeploy staff.

“If you would have told me last year during the wave of Delta in the spring that this was going to happen now, I wouldn’t have believed you,” said Jensen. “I really thought that we would be in a better position. It is disappointing. I think it is easy to feel overwhelmed.”

Knowing things will likely get worse before they get better, Jensen said all hospital staff can do is lean on each other until they get through the storm.

And that storm will end, she says. Vaccines, which still protect against serious disease and natural immunity borne of infection, will eventually put Omicron in a corner.

“There is hope. We have therapeutics now. We have vaccines. I think there will be updated vaccines based on new variants and those are already in development. And so I do not think that it’s a hopeless situation at all.”

Grant LaFleche is a St. Catharines-based investigative reporter with the Standard. Reach him via email: grant.lafleche@niagaradailies.com