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Today’s coronavirus news: Canadians advised against non-essential international travel; Ontario to open boosters to those 18 and over on Monday


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Today’s coronavirus news: Canadians advised against non-essential international travel; Ontario to open boosters to those 18 and over on Monday

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Wednesday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

9:17 p.m.: Dramatically rising case counts of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in Ontario, Quebec and around the world has British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix warning about a “time to exercise caution.”

B.C. supports the federal government’s call to advise Canadians against international travel over the holiday season due to the rising threat of the Omicron variant, Dix said Wednesday.

“I think that’s good advice to take,” he said at a news conference. “There will be other trips.”

Travel within Canada over the holidays should also be reconsidered despite the disappointment of possibly not gathering with family and loved ones, said Dix.

“The message is, if you’re not vaccinated definitely don’t travel,” he said.

B.C. is also considering implementing further public health orders on large and small public and private gatherings in an effort to limit the spread of the highly transmissible variant, Dix said.

Possibly expanding public health orders that place limits on gatherings, which could include Vancouver Canucks games and informal private parties, may come early next week, he said.

8:50 p.m.: Sporting venues will soon be limited to half capacity, leaving fans wondering if they will be able to use their tickets to future Raptors and Leafs games.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Wednesday that any venue in the province with a capacity of 1,000 people or more will be capped at 50 per cent starting Saturday at 12:01 a.m. That includes facilities used for sports and recreational fitness activities, concert venues, theatres and cinemas, racing venues, meeting and event spaces and more.

“With Omicron spreading so fast, at such an alarming rate, we need to target the largest crowds indoors, where people are often unmasked,” Ford said.

The reduction in capacity at larger indoor venues was one of a number of amendments to the province’s plan to blunt the rapid advance of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which is four to eight times more infectious than the Delta variant, according to Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore.

“We don’t want to close but we want to limit, or decrease, the risk in those venues,” Moore said. “Omicron is a definite game changer. We have to try to decrease the risk of rapid spread in those environments.”

Saturday’s Raptors game against the Golden State Warriors will be the first event at Scotiabank Arena under the new restrictions. The Leafs aren’t scheduled to play their next home game until Dec. 23.

Read the full story here: Raptors, Maple Leafs home games to be limited to half capacity as Ontario tightens COVID restrictions

8:35 p.m.: Ontarians ages 18 and older can get their COVID-19 booster shots starting Monday, Dec. 20.

Here’s how to book a booster shot, where to go, and how to get access to rapid COVID-19 testing.

Read the full story here from Kevin Jiang.

8:03 p.m.: Toronto is urgently ramping up capacity to meet vaccine booster-shot demand, possibly with help from volunteers, to beat back the Omicron variant now spreading in the city.

Speaking shortly after Premier Doug Ford announced that, come Monday, all Ontarians aged 18 and over will be eligible for a third dose of COVID-19 vaccine, city officials announced they are dramatically expanding clinic operations.

But they also acknowledged that they don’t know if the city and its “Team Toronto” health partners currently have enough doctors and other staff to meet the rush, or how quickly they’ll be able to get all the booster shots administered.

“There’s nothing off the table,” to boost capacity, fire chief Matthew Pegg, overseeing the five city-run vaccination clinics now expanding hours and returning to seven-day operation, told reporters Wednesday.

“We’re looking at every single option that is available to us to make every single dose of vaccine available across our city.”

Mayor John Tory said efforts could require tapping volunteers to help run clinics, as happened in the first rush to get Torontonians vaccinated earlier this year. This time, many health professionals are exhausted after 21 months of the pandemic.

Read the full story here: Toronto to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine clinic operations in response to Omicron

8 p.m.: It’s all blunt force and chaos now, writes Star columnist Bruce Arthur. Ontario has woken up to Omicron, too late: we never had a chance to contain it, only prepare for it, and we fell short. Omicron is already everywhere here. Its growth will boggle the mind.

So at least the province did something. Vaccination had been left to drift, but Premier Doug Ford mentioned an ambitious expansion to 200,000 to 300,000 a day. Opening boosters to anybody over 18 starting Monday will cause a pell-mell chaos hunt, but at this stage we should be firing vaccine syringes from leaf blowers, step right up. Rapid tests in LCBOs isn’t perfect, and we should add locations in harder-hit postal codes, but good, push ’em out. Cutting the capacity of venues over 1,000 to 50 per cent is incoherent bargaining. But it might be a start.

At least they’re doing something. Omicron is overwhelming, but we all need to do something.

Read the full column here: Omicron will cause chaos. But Doug Ford has started doing something, and so should everyone

6:30 p.m.: Over the past week, Omicron has sent Canada into what feels like COVID’s 19th nervous breakdown, sounding the alarm that it’s time again to batten down the hatches and prepare for looming disaster. At least, that’s what I can gather from following news reports, social media, and conversations with family back home: tighter border restrictions, public-service work-from-home orders, schools preparing to go virtual again, contemplated bans on spectators at sporting events. Ontario announced a “wartime footing” for booster shot mobilization.

“This is the scariest it has been since this pandemic started,” Dr. Beate Sander, the head of Ontario’s independent volunteer science table’s modelling group, told my colleague Bruce Arthur before the weekend, summing up the feeling radiating south from Canada.

Down here in the U.S.? Well, there’s no wartime footing. Media outlets are covering the emerging (scary) science of Omicron, but the hatches largely remain unbattened.

Read the full analysis here: Americans are finished with COVID-19 but Omicron is just getting started with them

6:15 p.m.: Montreal’s public health director on Wednesday encouraged people to cancel parties at schools and at workplaces ahead of Christmas, as the city faced the double threat of rising COVID-19 infections led by the Delta and Omicron variants.

The “rapid increase” in cases is being driven by outbreaks of the Delta variant across the city’s schools and by community transmission of the Omicron mutation, Dr. Mylène Drouin told reporters. She reported 844 new infections Wednesday and said her department had so far detected 95 cases of Omicron in the city.

Drouin said people should avoid in-person parties at work and at school over the next 10 days.

Read the full story here: Montreal public health says Omicron variant spreading rapidly, 95 cases in the city

6 p.m.: The U.K. recorded the highest number of confirmed new COVID-19 infections Wednesday since the pandemic began, and England’s chief medical officer warned the situation is likely to get worse as the omicron variant drives a new wave of illness during the Christmas holidays.

Professor Chris Whitty described the current situation as two epidemics in one — with omicron infections rising rapidly even as the country continues to grapple with the older Delta variant, which is still causing a large number of infections. Public health officials expect omicron to become the dominant variant across the U.K. within days. Omicron already accounts for a majority of cases in London.

The U.K. recorded 78,610 new infections on Wednesday, 16% higher than the previous record set in January. While scientists are still studying the risks posed by the highly transmissible omicron variant, Witty said the public should be braced for the figures to continue rising in coming weeks.

Read the full story here: U.K. COVID cases hit record; Top doctor warns of worse to come

5:43 p.m.: Some Ontario school boards are advising parents to prepare for a pivot to remote learning in January — just in case —and to ensure their children take home personal belongings and any necessary learning resources before the winter break.

In a letter to parents on Wednesday, the Toronto District School Board said as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the city, so does “the possibility of individual classes or schools moving to remote learning for a period of time.”

“While we have received no indication from either the Ministry of Education or public health officials that schools will close, we do want to make sure we are prepared to implement any decision they may make.”

Read the full story here: Students told to bring belongings home in case of switch to online learning

5:15 p.m.: Yukon Premier Sandy Silver says there is no magic formula to stop the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, but people can take measures to reduce its transmission.

He says the government’s current focus is doing whatever it can to limit Omicron’s spread, but given the territory’s connections to the rest of Canada, it will make its presence felt and test people.

Silver told the media Wednesday there are no cases of Omicron currently in Yukon and the two people who had it earlier this month have recovered.

Read the full story here: Yukon to focus on measures to reduce spread of transmissible Omicron variant: premier

5:07 p.m.: One by one, people came down the escalator of the waterfront office tower with light green boxes sticking out of their jacket pockets.

Most had heard from a friend that free COVID rapid antigen tests were available at 10 Bay St. And sure enough, at the back of the food court, in front of a boarded-up commercial unit where a Starbucks used to teem with people, two women stood at a table spreading the word like mild-mannered carnival barkers: “Hello! Rapid COVID tests!”

A sign emblazoned with the Ontario government logo stood beside the table, but the women were employees of Switch Health, a private-sector COVID testing company that also offers paid tests at Pearson airport. The same company was also at Eglinton subway station Wednesday distributing the boxes, which include five tests.

Read the full story here: Free rapid COVID tests already popping up around Toronto, part of a holiday testing blitz

4:12 p.m.: Ontario says indoor venues with a usual capacity of 1,000 people or more — such as sports venues, concert venues, cinemas — will see a 50 per cent capacity limit, effective Saturday Dec. 18 at 12:01 a.m.

3:44 p.m.: Manitoba’s chief public health officer is urging people to reconsider large holiday gatherings.

Dr. Brent Roussin has released preliminary modelling that suggests the number of new daily COVID-19 cases could quadruple or more as the Omicron variant spreads in the coming weeks.

Roussin says there are few cases of the variant in Manitoba right now, but it has proven very transmissible in Ontario and the United Kingdom.

Roussin says people should stick to small gatherings where others are immunized.

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s vaccination effort, says people should get fully immunized before gathering with loved ones.

Manitoba is already struggling to keep up with the demand for intensive care beds, and the government is not ruling out sending more patients out of province.

3:25 p.m. The Ontario government will make millions of rapid tests available for free at 660 LCBO outlets in the coming days, sources tell the Star.

The tests, distributed free to businesses for employees for months, cost $40 at pharmacies.

Read the full story here: Ontario will offer COVID-19 booster shots to everyone 18 and older starting Monday

3 p.m.: The Ontario Science Table is reporting that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is doubling every 2.2 days in the province, with it now accounting for 53 per cent of cases.

Furthermore, the advisory group says every person with Omicron is infecting more than four other people. By comparison, anyone with Delta in Ontario currently infects only one other person.

2:50 p.m.: Ontarians 18 and older can start getting COVID-19 booster shots Monday as the province scrambles to blunt the rapid advance of the Omicron variant.

Doses of vaccines will be shipped to large employers to do more injections quickly with the more highly contagious new strain taking off just over a week before Christmas, government sources said Wednesday.

“We’re going on wartime footing to get as many needles into arms as possible, working with unions and businesses to pull out all the stops,” a senior official told the Star in advance of a late afternoon news conference by Premier Doug Ford.

Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott and chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore will release more details on the plan, which has changed substantially from Friday when it was announced boosters for those aged 18 to 49 would not begin until Jan. 4.

Read the full story from the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau here.

2:30 p.m. (update) The federal government has restored its advisory against non-essential international travel as it attempts to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19’s Omicron variant.

“Today, I have the task of confirming that our government is officially advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced at a Wednesday news conference alongside other federal ministers and public health officials.

“To those who are planning to travel, I say very clearly: now is not the time for travel.”

The advisory will be in place for four weeks, at which point the guidelines will be reassessed.

Read the full story from the Star’s Raisa Patel here.

2:15 p.m.: The World Health Organization is concerned that the omicron variant is being dismissed as mild, even as it spreads at a faster rate than any previous strain of COVID-19.

The recently detected variant has been reported in some 77 nations, though it’s probably in most countries already, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“We’re concerned that people are jumping to a conclusion that this is a mild disease,” Bruce Aylward, senior adviser at the WHO, told journalists at a briefing on Tuesday. “A more transmissible virus can do just as much damage — or more — than one which is more severe but less transmissible.”

The combination of increased socializing over the holidays and a strain that’s more easily passed around can lead to “very dangerous situations,” he added.

The emergence of omicron, with its large number of mutations, has scientists around the world racing to track its progress and to determine whether the strain can evade current vaccines, is more transmissible than previous variants or causes less severe illness.

The vaccines by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, as well Johnson & Johnson, appear to largely prevent severe disease from omicron, South African studies show. The two-shot Pfizer course may offer 70% protection against being hospitalized with the variant.

2:15 p.m. The omicron variant is spreading so rapidly it has the potential to overwhelm Britain’s hospitals, highlighting the need to strengthen coronavirus restrictions and speed up the delivery of booster vaccine shots, the country’s health minister said Tuesday.

Omicron is so transmissible that even if it proves to be less severe than other variants, there is still likely to be a surge in hospital admissions if it goes unchecked, U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

His comments came as the government rushed to accelerate the national vaccination program, with a goal of offering a booster dose to every adult by the end of December. Lawmakers also voted Tuesday to approve tougher rules on mask-wearing in most indoor public places and mandatory COVID passes for nightclubs to slow the variant until more vaccinations can be delivered.

“This is a new national mission,” Javid said. “A race between the virus and the vaccine to get as many people protected as possible.”

In another effort to speed up the booster program, U.K. health officials temporarily suspended the 15-minute observation period normally required for anyone receiving a Pfizer or Moderna shot. Doctors had complained that the waiting period — designed to spot allergic reactions before patients left clinics — usually wasn’t necessary and resulted in healthy patients taking up valuable space at crowded vaccination centres.

Long lines formed outside vaccination centres across England for a second consecutive day on Tuesday as the National Health Service raced to meet the government’s target of delivering up to 1 million shots a day, more than double the recent average.

1:55 p.m. Amtrak is no longer expecting service to be disrupted in the new year after announcing it will allow unvaccinated employees to remain working if they test regularly for the coronavirus.

The railway company had been expecting to cut back the frequency of service in January after discovering roughly 5 per cent of its workers were running out of time to comply with a federal vaccine mandate requiring all federal contractors to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4.

Plans changed after a federal judge ruling last week halted the enforcement of President Joe Biden’s executive order.

1:43 p.m. The federal government is urging Canadians not to travel internationally. Canada is announcing a new travel advisory to avoid non-essential international travel due to Omicron.

Federal Health Minister Duclos says the government is officially advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside of the country. “This is not the time to do so,” Duclos says.

1:15 p.m. Some school boards in Ontario are asking students to take home their personal belongings and devices from classrooms as they prepare for the possibility of a return to remote learning in the new year.

In a memo issued today, the Toronto District School Board told parents it hasn’t received any indication from the Ministry of Education that schools will close, but it wants to make sure it’s prepared.

The TDSB says it wants to implement any decision the province makes “smoothly and efficiently” to support students’ learning and well-being.

The Waterloo Region District School Board issued a similar memo today, saying its staff have prepared schools to “ensure a smooth transition, if required.”

Both school boards are asking families to remind their children to take home their personal belongings and any tools or supplies they might need to pivot to remote learning.

At a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said he hopes to keep schools open “as long as we can,” with protocols being reviewed to make schools safer.

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Dr. Kieran Moore also said that he still considers schools safe.

Ontario reported 1,808 cases of COVID-19 and nine new virus-related deaths on Wednesday.

12:50 p.m. Concerns over surging COVID-19 cases in the province are prompting some Ontario universities to move classes online for the start of the winter term.

York University and McMaster University announced the winter term will start as planned on Jan.10, but classes will be online, rather than in person. Other universities are also adjusting plans and expected to release details.

York University in Toronto says in-person courses, and most on-campus activities, will resume Jan. 24. Until then, all classes will be delivered remotely, unless it’s essential they be in person.

Read the full story from the Star’s Isabel Teotonio

12:35 p.m. Alberta is making changes to testing, booster shots and gathering restrictions as it braces for an increase in cases of the more transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta’s vaccination rate means it is well positioned to handle the variant, allowing the province to loosen gathering restrictions.

But he says it’s best to be cautious given Omicron’s rapid spread and other unknowns.

Kenney says a rapid testing program will be expanded Friday, with free test kits available to Albertans at select health services sites and pharmacies.

The booster shot program is being expanded immediately to anyone 50 years and older and to all health-care workers provided it’s six months after their second shots.

12:30 p.m. Omicron could be the dominant coronavirus variant in Europe by mid-January, causing a surge in cases and likely increasing the number of hospitalizations and deaths, European Union officials said on Wednesday.

“We are facing another Christmas in pandemic mode,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, told lawmakers in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, noting that reports of new cases in the bloc were doubling every two to three days.

Her speech and an assessment by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control painted a grim picture of the state of the pandemic on the continent, where many countries have recently reintroduced restrictions and scrambled to speed up vaccination campaigns.

12:20 p.m. Toronto Public Health is recommending city council extend until at least April the COVID-19 rule that everyone must wear a mask or face covering in all indoor public settings, including common areas in multi-residential buildings.

“The extension of these temporary (mask) bylaws is necessary to control the spread of COVID-19, as they are set to expire at the end of the February 2 and 3, 2022 City Council meeting” says the recommendation going to council this week.”

“The acting public health chief is recommending that, after the next order expires in April, city council each month determines if mandatory masking in indoor public settings is still required.”

12:03 p.m. Quebec Premier François Legault says he may reconsider his plan to ease indoor gathering limits for the holidays, as health officials report 2,386 new COVID-19 cases.

Legault told reporters in Quebec City today it would be irresponsible not to review that plan given the high numbers of new daily cases in the province.

His government has said the cap for indoor private gathering would rise to 20 people from 10 on Dec. 23.

Legault says that for now, he’s sticking with his decision to ease gathering limits because the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations remains manageable and within the health system’s 800-bed capacity.

11:37 a.m. The vast majority of the 400,000 rapid tests that the Nova Scotia government distributed via the provincial library system starting Monday were almost immediately snapped up, even with a limit of one per person. By Tuesday morning, library officials said, most branches were tapped out.

As Ontario moves to expand its distribution of rapid testing, Nova Scotia has been at the forefront of national efforts to democratize testing — and the uptake has been noticed.

“We are blown away by Nova Scotians’ commitment to testing,” said Health and Wellness spokesperson Marla McInnis.

She said the province expects another 400,000 tests from the federal government next week; those too will be distributed to the general public via libraries, and judging by the demand at the various branches, they aren’t expected to last long either.

Read the full story from the Star’s Steve McKinley

10:50 a.m. The bar and restaurant industry decimated by COVID is getting a lifeline — cheaper booze.

The Ontario government is set to announce Friday that bars and restaurants will be getting a 10 per cent discount off the retail price when buying cider, beer, spirits and imported wine from the LCBO, the Star has learned.

“We recognize the challenge Ontario restaurants and bars have faced over the course of the pandemic, and reducing the prices they pay for beer, wine and spirits will help support these small business owners and the thousands of workers they employ,” said a senior government source familiar with the move.

Read the full story from the Star’s Josh Rubin

10:15 a.m. Ontario is reporting another 1,808 COVID-19 cases and nine more deaths, according to its latest report released Wednesday morning.

Ontario has administered 127,613 vaccine doses since its last daily update, with 24,711,702 vaccines given in total as of 8 p.m. the previous night.

According to the Star’s vaccine tracker, 12,033,585 people in Ontario have received at least one shot. That works out to approximately 85.9 per cent of the eligible population five years and older and the equivalent of 81.9 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The province says 11,340,162 people have completed their vaccinations, which means they’ve had both doses. That works out to approximately 80.9 per cent of the eligible population five years and older, and the equivalent of 77.1 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Read the full story from the Star’s Urbi Khan

9:30 a.m. A teacher in South Florida has been fired for repeatedly refusing to wear a mask.

The school board in Broward County on Tuesday unanimously voted to fire John C. Alvarez, a science teacher at Piper High for gross insubordination.

Alvarez plans to appeal the decision to an administrative law judge, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The school board had required students and employees to wear masks in schools for most of the school year, citing a large number of COVID-19 cases, as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

9:10 a.m. Americans slowed their spending in November from October, but continued shopping despite higher prices and shortages in stores.

Retail sales rose a modest seasonally adjusted 0.3 per cent in November from the month before when sales rose a revised 1.8 per cent, the U.S. Commerce Department said Wednesday, a bit weaker than most economists had expected. Holiday shopping may have pumped up last month’s numbers, and drew from November’s, with news of shortages and supply chain backups in headlines.

Online sales were unchanged last month, while sales at department stores fell 5.4 per cent. Electronics stores also saw a dip, posting a 4.6 per cent decline. Restaurant sales rose 1 per cent, while business at food and beverage stores was up 1.3 per cent.

7:45 a.m. Cosburn Middle School (520 Cosburn Avenue) has moved to online learning due to an ongoing COVID-19 investigation, Toronto Public Health says.

“We are recommending a whole school dismissal as a precautionary measure to protect staff, students and the community from further COVID-19 transmission within the school,” TPS tweeted Wednesday morning.

“TPH will continue to work w/our school community & have notified close contacts & ask them to stay home, monitor for symptoms & get tested. We’ll work closely with our school partners to determine when in-person learning will resume.”

7:35 a.m. Police in eastern Germany carried out raids Wednesday in an investigation of alleged threats to kill a state governor and others by opponents of coronavirus restrictions and vaccinations. They said they found weapons including crossbows, but it wasn’t clear whether they were usable.

Five properties in Dresden and one in the nearby town of Heidenau were searched in an investigation of suspected preparations for a serious act of violence, police said on Twitter.

The investigation was triggered by a report last week on ZDF television that a group on messenger service Telegram discussed plans to kill Saxony’s state governor, Michael Kretschmer, and other members of the state government. Dresden is the capital of Saxony, which has seen frequent protests against coronavirus policy and has Germany’s lowest vaccination rate.

7:10 a.m. The Federal Court is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday from four Canadian Armed Forces members facing disciplinary action for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Chief of the defence Gen. Wayne Eyre ordered all Armed Forces members to be vaccinated by the end of November or face remedial measures, including possible dismissal from the military. That deadline has since been extended to Dec. 18.

The order follows a similar requirement for all federal public servants as the Liberal government sought to set an example for all Canadians to get vaccinated. Eyre has also said his order is intended to protect the military during the pandemic.

6:10 a.m. When Matthew Seabrook took his 10-year-old son to get his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at the end of November, a wave of relief washed over the London, Ont. father.

He was happy to immediately schedule his son for dose No. 2 eight weeks later, for the end of January.

To Seabrook, it all seemed “reasonable” and hopeful, like one of the big weights of the COVID-19 pandemic for parents — getting their kids the best vaccine protection available — finally stood to be lifted from his shoulders.

“A big priority for us has been to do everything we can to make sure he can go to school in person this year,” Seabrook, who, along with his wife, home-schooled their son last year. “We’re very happy to get him his first dose.”

Parents such as Seabrook are now making judgment calls about whether to try to get a second dose for their kids earlier than the eight-week interval recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI).

Read more from the Star’s Alex McKeen and Jeremy Nuttall.

6 a.m. A dinner of chicken with stuffing, mixed in with some Indian food. A Secret Santa gift exchange. Everyone gathered around the TV to watch “Home Alone.”

These are the simple holiday pleasures Dr. Nitin Mohan, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Western University, is looking forward to sharing with a couple of extended family members, after COVID essentially cancelled the season last year.

“While I’m frustrated that we won’t be having the Christmas we thought we would be having a month ago, when I look at where we were last year, I still think we’re in a better position than where we were back then, ” said Mohan, who is being extra cautious as he and his wife have a five-month-old son.

The Star reached out to COVID-19 experts, including Mohan, to ask how they were marking the 2021 holidays, whether that involved celebrating Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, or just enjoying some time off work.

Read more from the Star’s Lex Harvey and May Warren.

5:50 a.m. The Omicron variant is posing a startling new threat to Ontario’s vulnerable long-term-care homes, which face the prospect of “uncontrolled, rapid growth” in COVID-19 cases for the first time since Wave 2, experts warn.

Since the spring, long-term care has been largely spared the worst as the province’s vaccine rollout prevented a repeat of the mass outbreaks that devastated the sector during the first and second waves, killing nearly 4,000.

But, experts are warning, Omicron’s greater ability to infect vaccinated people could make it more likely the virus will once again spread through Ontario nursing homes in a way we haven’t seen in nearly a year.

Read more from the Star’s Kenyon Wallace and Ed Tubb.

5:45 a.m. Fans filled Scotiabank Arena on Saturday to catch the Maple Leafs, and then again Monday to cheer on the Raptors.

And as tens of thousands of people gathered for the two games, daily COVID-19 case counts in Toronto and across the province were quickly climbing, with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The surge of cases has some experts calling for restrictions to crowds at professional sporting events in Ontario, with one suggesting capacity limits and the elimination of concession stands. Others said fans shouldn’t be in the stands at all.

Amid these calls, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer for health, said his team was reviewing its policy. The review will be presented to Doug Ford’s provincial government for options. Moore said he expected further news to be announced later this week, while urging seniors and immunocompromised people to avoid mass gatherings.

Read more from the Star’s Laura Armstrong.

5:30 a.m. Premier Doug Ford will announce an expanded COVID-19 booster shot plan Wednesday while his government develops new province-wide measures to slow the surge of the super-contagious Omicron variant.

“We’re going on wartime footing to get as many needles in arms as possible, working with unions and business to pull out all the stops,” a senior official told the Star.

There is mounting frustration in the government with Ontario’s chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore and the science table over delays to a booster plan and widespread rapid testing. The doctors resisted boosters for months because they did not want Ontario hoarding precious vaccines and were hesitant about rapid tests and false positive results.

“We have enough vaccine. We just need to get it out to people,” said the senior official.

Under pressure to quickly expand boosters to everyone over 18 instead of waiting until Jan. 4 as scheduled last week, Ford’s cabinet is meeting to debate options for a rapid expansion of the third doses.

Read more from the Star’s Rob Ferguson and Robert Benzie.

5:15 a.m. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday that omicron is expected to be the dominant coronavirus variant in the 27-nation bloc by mid-January.

The head of the EU’s executive branch said the bloc is well prepared to fight Omicron with 66.6% of the European population now fully vaccinated against the virus.

Von der Leyen said she is confident the EU has the “strength” and “means” to overcome the disease, although expressing her disappointment that once again year-end celebrations will be disturbed by the pandemic.

“Like many of you, I’m sad that once again this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic,” Von der Leyen.

She added that the EU is now facing a double challenge, with a massive increase of cases in recent weeks due to the Delta variant combined with the rise of Omicron, as some member countries are already confronted with a record number of infections.

“We’re seeing an increasing number of people falling ill, a greater burden on hospitals and unfortunately an increase in the number of deaths,” she said.

5:10 a.m. The federal government is poised to tighten Canada’s borders once again, advising Canadians against all non-essential travel and getting ready to ramp up border testing and quarantine measures, the Star has learned.

Those include requiring Canadians who do travel abroad to once again produce negative PCR tests upon return, even for short trips outside the country of 72 hours or less — a condition that was briefly lifted before the onset of the Omicron variant.

The government had weighed a broader border closure, with a ban on foreign nationals other than essential workers, which would have stopped travellers including those from the U.S. from entering Canada at all entry points, including land and air. But the Liberals appeared to abandon that plan after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to premiers in a Tuesday night teleconference.

Incoming fully vaccinated travellers are to be tested on arrival and will have to quarantine at home while awaiting negative test results.

Read more from the Star’s Tonda MacCharles.

5 a.m. With the Omicron variant on track to be the most prevalent strain of COVID-19 in Ontario, many are wondering what symptoms they should be on the lookout for to keep themselves and their loved ones safe ahead of the holidays.

Early data from South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected, show this strain of the virus to be milder than others. But scientists say the data doesn’t tell the whole story, as South Africa’s population skews younger and many have already been infected with COVID-19 or are vaccinated, and thus have more antibodies to fight it.

“Those symptoms actually may be more representative of breakthrough infections, which are milder than a person who’s never been vaccinated, never been infected, having it for the first time,” said Kelly Grindrod, a pharmacist and professor at the University of Waterloo.

So as cases increase, what symptoms should people watch out for?

Read more from the Star’s Nadine Yousif.

4:45 a.m. A rugby tournament is being linked to the spread of COVID-19 cases — including Omicron cases — across Canada.

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, told a briefing Tuesday there had been an outbreak of cases at the University of Victoria, involving both Omicron and Delta variants.

“The introduction of Omicron (was) related to a rugby tournament, which sadly has spread Omicron to university communities across the country,” Henry said.

Though she did not name the tournament, B.C. health officials said it involved a tournament with Queen’s University.

Read more from the Star’s Alex McKeen.

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