COVID-19 infections are rising across Canada thanks to surges in Ontario and Quebec and the national situation will quickly worsen if the new Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain of the coronavirus, federal health officials reported Friday.
Canada’s two largest provinces are already on pace for a strong “resurgence” of COVID-19 that could see daily infections roughly double over the coming weeks — and both provinces will see the situation exacerbated if Omicron spreads further within the country, according to new data published by Health Canada.
This could send new daily infections across Canada skyrocketing to more than 12,000 — from around 3,300 now — by the end of December, assuming Omicron is three times more transmissible than the Delta variant that is currently dominant, the data showed.
Ontario responded to the situation Friday by scheduling the availability of third dose booster shots to all residents above 18 years old as of Jan. 4. The boosters will be available to anyone aged 50 and over starting Monday morning.
As of Thursday, Health Canada was aware of 87 cases of Omicron in this country from six provinces and one territory, with recent evidence suggesting the variant might have started spreading within Canada despite new travel restrictions, said Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.
It’s not time to “panic,” she said — just stay vigilant.
“Getting the vaccine is still the most important layer of protection,” Tam said, adding that people should also get their booster shots as soon as they are available. She called the shots a “gift” that wasn’t available last year, pointing to lower levels of severe cases thanks to Canada’s broadening vaccination rate.
Yet even so, Tam urged Canadians to keep private gatherings “small” over the holidays and take familiar public health precautions, though the federal government is not calling on people to refrain from travelling internationally or within Canada.
Tam did say, however, that it’s a “better choice” to remain closer to home.
“The winter period is going to be a bumpy road towards a brighter spring,” said Tam. “This is another bump.”
Though early evidence suggests Omicron is significantly more transmissible than other variants, Tam said there are still questions around whether it leads to more severe cases and can better dodge the immunity that comes from vaccines.
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Tam did not call for stronger measures to curb the spread in Ontario and Quebec, noting that the highest number of new infections in the provinces are among children where severe cases are rare. Health Canada data says that of 380,000 childhood cases of COVID-19 so far, about one per cent were severe cases.
But Tam warned “the omicron variant could take over pretty fast” and that could make the situation more dangerous if it results in more severe cases of COVID-19.
Over the past week, an average of 1,460 people with COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals across Canada, including more than 450 people in intensive care. There were also 20 deaths per day on average.
For now, the federal government is stopping short of advising people not to travel, though federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said it is now “risky and unstable” for Canadians to venture abroad. He warned that anyone who leaves the country over the holidays will face “delays and hassle” upon their return.
“Omicron should be a big red part of the radar screen, it should be flashing,” Duclos said. “If you think of travelling, that should be a serious alarm bell.”
To defend against the variant, the Liberal government is imposing testing and isolation requirements for all travellers from abroad — including people who are vaccinated against COVID-19. It is also pushing to increase testing capacity for arriving air passengers to 23,000 per day. Duclos said it was at 17,000 per day on Dec. 9, up from around 11,000 per day at the end of November.
But despite these measures, Duclos said he still expects Omicron to take firmer root in Canada. He urged people to follow familiar public health measures like physical distancing and wearing masks, and called on Canadians to get their COVID-19 booster shots as soon as they are available.
“These tests and these procedures are by definition imperfect,” Duclos said of the new measures at Canadian airports. “They are not going to stop the variant and the virus from entering Canada.”
The federal government is also going to provide 35 million rapid tests that the provinces are requesting this month, Duclos said.
With files from Robert Benzie
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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