Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott released a statement Sunday evening confirming the Omicron cases in Ottawa. According to the statement, the affected individuals travelled from Nigeria and have been isolated.
The variant was first detected in South Africa. After the World Health Organization announced the new variant last week, many countries banned travellers from the country.
In response to concerns about the Omicron variant, the federal government had implemented enhanced border measures on Friday for all travellers who had been in any countries in the southern African region. However, Nigeria wasn’t one of the countries.
“The best defence against the Omicron variant is stopping it at our border,” read the statement. “We continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travellers.”
Public Healthy Agency of Canada said that early data shows the Omicron variant to be more transmissible. “There is ongoing international data gathering to determine the impact of this variant on severity of illness and on vaccine effectiveness,” said the agency.
WHO said the Omicron variant shows a higher risk of reinfection among people who previously had COVID-19, as compared to other variants of concern. However, the information is limited.
“Understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks,” said WHO in a statement.
WHO urged caution as South African experts called the variant “mild,” revealing that the majority of cases are among university students and that younger patients tend to have milder symptoms.
The preliminary data collected by WHO shows increased hospitalizations, which could be due to overall number of infections increasing instead of specific infection from Omicron.
“There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants,” said WHO.
Elliott and Dr. Kieran Moore, chief medical officer of health, assured that Ontario is prepared and ready to respond to the new variant. The Ontario COVID-19 Genomic Network is actively monitoring for all potential variants circulating in the province.
“Ontario has the infrastructure in place to manage outbreaks,” Elliott said. “Ontario is prepared and ready to respond to the new variant.”
Since the Omicron variant became known, Public Health Ontario has been working to introduce screening tests for people infected with COVID-19, a Star source told the Star. The screening will help the province with early detection of the marker for the Omicron variant.
Ottawa Public Health agency is conducting case and contact management to find more cases of variant. People are urged to get vaccinated including getting booster shots if eligible. “Vaccination is likely to still provide some meaningful benefits,” said Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease physician and scientist.
Canadians are being advised to avoid travelling to countries in the southern African region, as they could be forced to remain outside the country longer than expected.
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On the other hand, WHO urged countries around the world to not impose travel bans. Matshidiso Moeti, the agency’s regional director for Africa, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Moeti said. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive.”
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the restrictions “completely unjustified.”
Moeti praised South African and Botswana governments for quickly informing the world of the new variant. The country’s national laboratory reported to WHO as soon as the Omicron variant was identified.
Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said he has spoken to Ontario health officials and as the monitoring and testing continues, more cases of the variant are expected to be found.
Peter Juni, epidemiologist and scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, says we need to act as quickly as possible in order to control the spread of the Omicron variant, even though we’re already reacting faster than with previous variants.
“Typically, when we realize what’s going on, it’s already too late,” Juni said. “Even though we know much better with vaccines and drugs now than we were dealing with Alpha and Delta, we might struggle to contain it,” adding that Omicron seemingly dominates previous variants in terms of transmission and immunity evasion.
The fact that Ontario’s first two cases stem from people who travelled back from Nigeria, outside of Southern Africa, could be of concern in regards to the transmissibility of the Omicron variant. That, coupled with the fact that there are still some unknowns about how it interacts with vaccine and hospitalization rates, we can’t just easily dismiss the new variant as a “blip,” said Juni.
“We just need to be swift,” Juni said. “Take it seriously. We know which safety measures that we need to take if required. During the next few days, we’ll see how it evolves.”
Juni says the first steps to tackling the new variant is to “crack down” on every traveller, determine with whom they’ve been in contact and to test them immediately. The goal, Juni said, is to avoid community transmission.
While we wait to learn more about the Omicron variant, Juni suggests people be more cautious about pandemic measures, such as masking properly, keeping indoor spaces well-ventilated and being selective about your contacts. On top of that, Juni emphasizes the importance of everyone getting fully vaccinated and for people to get their booster shots if they’re eligible.
“We have measures implemented that work relatively well, but we now really need to get more disciplined,” Juni said. “We need to discuss whether we can make vaccines certificates more stringent and then, depending on the situation, we need to be open again for discussions on capacity limits, etc., depending on how this now evolves.”
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 964 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday. It’s the highest daily case count recorded in the province since May 30, the last time new infections hit the 1,000 mark.
With files from The Canadian Press
Ashima Agnihotri is a reporter for the Star’s radio room based in Toronto. Reach Ashima via email: [email protected]
Celina Gallardo is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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