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The impact of shifting demographics, variants of concern and vaccination on outcomes during the first 3 COVID-19 waves in Alberta and Ontario: a retrospective cohort study

McAlister FA, Nabipoor M, Chu A, Lee DS, Saxinger L, Bakal JA; CORONA Collaboration. CMAJ Open. 2022; 10(2):E400-8. Epub 2022 Apr 26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.9778/cmajo.20210323


Background — In Canada, published outcome data for COVID-19 come largely from the first 2 waves of the pandemic. We examined changes in demographics and 30-day outcomes after SARS-CoV-2 infection during the first 3 pandemic waves in Alberta and Ontario; for wave 3, we compared outcomes between those infected with a variant of concern and those infected with the original "wild-type" SARS-CoV-2.

Methods — We conducted a population-based retrospective cohort study using linked health care data sets in Alberta and Ontario. We identified all-cause hospitalizations or deaths within 30 days after a positive result on a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test for SARS-CoV-2 in individuals of any age between Mar. 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, with genomic confirmation of variants of concern. We compared outcomes in wave 3 (February 2021 to June 2021) with outcomes in waves 1 and 2 combined (March 2020 to January 2021) after adjusting for age, sex and Charlson Comorbidity Index score. Using wave 3 data only, we compared outcomes by vaccination status and whether or not the individual was infected with a variant of concern.

Results — Compared to those infected with SARS-CoV-2 during waves 1 and 2 (n = 372 070), we found a shift toward a younger and healthier demographic in those infected during wave 3 (n = 359 079). In wave 3, patients were more likely to be hospitalized (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] 1.57, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.46-1.70) but had a shorter length of hospital stay (median 6 days v. 7 days, p < 0.001) and lower 30-day mortality (aOR 0.73, 95% CI 0.65-0.81). The 217 892 patients in wave 3 who were infected with a variant of concern (83.5% confirmed to have the Alpha variant, 1.7% confirmed to have the Delta variant) had a higher risk of death (Alpha: aOR 1.29, 95% CI 1.16-1.44; Delta: aOR 2.05, 95% CI 1.49-2.82) and hospitalization (Alpha: aOR 1.59, 95% CI 1.53-1.66; Delta: aOR 1.88, 95% CI 1.64-2.15) than those infected with wild-type SARS-CoV-2.

Interpretation — We observed a shift among those infected with SARS-CoV-2 toward younger patients with fewer comorbidities, a shorter length of hospital stay and lower mortality risk as the pandemic evolved in Alberta and Ontario; however, infection with a variant of concern was associated with a substantially higher risk of hospitalization or death. As variants of concern emerge, ongoing monitoring of disease expression and outcomes among vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals is important to understand the phenotypes of COVID-19 and the anticipated burdens for the health care system.

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