Even as Ontario began reopening its economy and returning to some semblance of normalcy this year, COVID-19 was wreaking havoc on the lives of older residents — killing them at higher rates than the past two waves, new data shows.
Analysis of death figures by researchers at the University of Toronto provided to the Star shows that since mid-December 2021, Omicron has been more deadly for Ontarians age 60 and over than the previous two waves combined.
And while Omicron may present milder symptoms than previous variants at an individual level, the sheer number of COVID deaths among Ontario seniors since Omicron became dominant — more than 3,700 — challenges the narrative that the worst of the pandemic was over as social gatherings got bigger and capacity limits in restaurants, bars and gyms were lifted.
“When enough people get infected … we get a large number of people who get hospitalized, and who might die,” says Dr. Sharmistha Mishra, an infectious disease physician and mathematical modeller at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. “And that’s what we’re seeing.
“The pathogen — the bug itself — doesn’t have to be very severe to cause havoc at a community or population level.”
Mishra, whose team at Unity Health Toronto conducted the analysis for the Star, called the findings “stark.” They show that in Wave 5, after Omicron emerged as the dominant variant in the province last winter, the peak in the rate of deaths in those 60 and older was 12 times higher than in the Delta wave last summer. And it was two times higher than the peak in the Alpha wave in spring 2021.
Even during Ontario’s most recent Omicron wave which began in late March — just as the province began to lift mask mandates — the peak death rate was three times higher than that of last summer’s Delta wave.
In early April, the province saw an estimated 100,000 new COVID infections per day, the highest number of daily cases since the beginning of the pandemic, increasing the odds that more individuals would have severe outcomes — and die — as the pool of infected people grew.
Per-capita Omicron deaths in Ontarians age 60 and older began to climb steeply in mid-December, peaking in mid-January before declining until about the end of February. They began to climb again in late March before reaching a second, smaller peak at the beginning of May, before declining into June. Another 1,348 people 60 and older died during that time period alone.
This means that since mid-December, Omicron has been responsible for 3,771 deaths in people 60 and older — about 1,400 more deaths than were recorded during the Alpha and Delta waves combined. Most were among those who were not fully vaccinated, meaning they had fewer than two vaccinations.
“I understand that at this point in the pandemic, people are very tired of hearing about COVID-19 and want to move on, but the sad reality is that COVID-19, including the Omicron variant, has caused a lot of deaths here in Ontario,” says Dr. Amit Arya, palliative care lead at Kensington Health in Toronto.
“The average 85-year-old has about seven years of life left, as an example. Many of the people who suffered and died from an impact of Omicron were not people who were otherwise imminently dying and at the end of life.”
One of those vulnerable seniors was Jim Mann. As the province dropped mask mandates on March 21, Mann, a devoted husband, father and Maple Leafs fan, lay in a hospital bed in St. Catharines, fighting the disease it seemed no one wanted to talk about anymore.
Mann, 67, a retired windows and doors salesman, had suffered from emphysema for years, but finally got the call he’d been waiting for: he received a pair of precious new lungs in the fall of last year.
He and his wife, Lori Mann, were finally looking forward to celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary at the Keg, visiting family out west and maybe even taking a vacation to Australia. They wanted to get back to a more normal life, free from the “leash,” as Jim used to call it, of an oxygen tank for the first time in a decade.
It had been just the two of them for most of the past nearly two years as the pandemic raged. They’d take long drives to get out of the apartment, wearing masks and cleaning their hands religiously with Purell. They skipped time with their kids and grandkids on holidays to be safe. Both Lori and Jim were triple-vaccinated.
In February 2022, Jim was due to get a fourth shot, but had to cancel for a non-COVID medical reason.
Jim was admitted to their local St. Catharines hospital after falling sick in mid-March and testing positive for COVID. It still drives Lori crazy, not knowing where he got it.
He was in and out of the ICU for the next five weeks. Lori wasn’t allowed to visit but they would talk every day by phone or, when he was too sick to speak, by text.
Finally, she was allowed to see him in mid-April, but it wasn’t looking good. That night she got a phone call at around 4:30 a.m.
“As soon as I saw that it was the hospital, I knew,” she said through tears during a recent interview.
“They said everything was failing.”
Lori called Jim’s daughter to join her at his bedside. He was on medication for COVID but nothing was working. After his lung transplant, Jim was put on drugs that suppressed his immune system, which made him more susceptible to the virus.
On her phone, Jim’s daughter played Jim and Lori’s wedding song, the ’90s country ballad “I Swear” by John Michael Montgomery, on the pillow beside him.
THE MOST POWERFUL SALE & AFFILIATE PLATFORM AVAILABLE!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
“Right at the end of that song he took his last breath,” Lori remembers.
“So that was it.”
Ontario death notices published during the first half of 2022 offer a glimpse into the many other lives lost to Omicron, each a reminder that — to older adults and other vulnerable people — the virus remains deadly.
Toronto resident Arthur Lowrie died in hospital in April at age 85 due to complications from COVID. Described in his obituary as “social, chatty, charismatic and handsome,” Lowrie, who lived in the city for more than 40 years, “appreciated good food, especially chocolate, and good friends, of which he had many.”
A few weeks later, on May 15, at the age of 75, Rosanna Biscaro died following a three-month stay at a Mississauga hospital after being exposed to COVID in mid-February.
Biscaro, who was married for 55 years and the mother of two, was known for her love of gardening and baking, especially her cream cheese brownies, according to her obituary.
“She had a great fear of COVID,” and though she had “persevered through many health struggles over the years, with her intense will to live and enjoy life,” the damage from COVID “proved to be too much for her to overcome,” her family wrote.
That same week in May, Robert “Bob” Tisdale of London, Ont., died in hospital from COVID complications. He was 85. The father of two, with four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, was a former high school teacher, active in his community, including the Rotary Club and local theatre, and drove a transport truck across North America hauling industrial goods during his retirement years, his obituary said.
“He loved life, his family, nature, his dog Riley, learning new things and was fiercely independent,” his family wrote.
The fact that seniors are the ones most likely to experience severe illness and death if they contract Omicron underscores the importance of getting fully vaccinated and boosted, said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network.
“Vaccination has been a gift but it’s only a gift if people keep up to date with their vaccinations,” said Sinha, noting that as of early May, only six provinces had given third doses to more than 80 per cent of their older adults.
“I’ve seen a lot more of my older patients, after being vigilant for two years, now being told all these messages that the pandemic is almost over, and then all of a sudden they’re getting COVID,” he added. “I’m not surprised that we’re seeing again the majority of the deaths that are occurring are amongst older people, because we know that they’ve always been the most vulnerable.”
In an email to the Star, the Health Ministry said it began a “live-agent” outreach campaign on June 13 to increase booster uptake among Ontarians age 70 to 79. It also began an email campaign in mid-June to encourage first boosters for those 50 to 69 and second boosters for those 60 and older.
The province said it could not provide the number of individuals who were vaccinated in these programs as outreach is still ongoing.
A similar program began in April for those 80 and older. The ministry said about 3,500 people 80 and older received their booster after being contacted by an agent.
“The ministry continues to work with public health units to ensure equity in our vaccine rollout and that each public health unit’s approach is tailored to local needs and context,” wrote spokesperson W.D. Lighthall.
Lori Mann wants people to know that others, like Jim, are still dying and urges them to “just be vigilant, and if they’re sick please stay home.”
She also wants people to remember her husband as more than just a statistic, to know that he was funny and fiercely loyal, whether that was to his kids and grandkids, his great-nephew, with whom he had a special bond, or the Leafs.
“ ‘No matter what, you stick by your team, no matter what they’re doing, they’re your team,’ ” he used to tell Lori.
“It’s still hard when my phone rings. I just think it’s going to be him,” she said, adding it still doesn’t seem real to be without Jim.
“We just never ever saw this coming. We had plans.”
With files from Astrid Lange
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email: email@example.com
May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11
Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe