Health professionals and provincial governments are drawing up battle plans to curb the spread of COVID-19 by bringing back restrictions while speeding up booster doses as the highly transmissible Omicron variant washes over the country.
As the holidays draw near, restrictions on social gatherings and visits to hospitals have been reintroduced with provincial governments trying to blunt the impact of Omicron.
British Columbia’s health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry highlighted the risk posed by Omicron on Tuesday, saying it works differently than other variants and more easily infects those who are vaccinated or have had COVID-19. Omicron is now the dominant variant in B.C.
“It is inevitable now that most of us in the province will be exposed at some point,” she told a news conference. “The way this strain of the virus is being transmitted through communities across the province, it is very likely that all of us will have exposure to it over time.”
It is estimated that the Omicron variant made up about 88 per cent of cases as of Tuesday in Ontario. The variant has largely overtaken the rising wave of infections in the province, even for those vaccinated with both COVID-19 shots. The province announced 3,453 new COVID-19 cases and 11 fatalities on Tuesday.
The spike brought stricter visiting policies in several Ontario hospitals, while in-patients staying fewer than seven days will not be allowed visitors.
The Unity Health network, which runs three hospitals in Toronto, said it had made the “difficult decision” to pause non-essential ambulatory care and surgical procedures, with the exception of urgent cases.
Health officials in Quebec reported a record number of COVID-19 cases with 5,043 new infections and eight additional deaths.
In Montreal, Mayor Valerie Plante reintroduced a state of emergency as the number of active COVID-19 cases soared to over 8,000 in the city.
Ottawa Public Health has asked residents who have symptoms but can’t access a timely test to assume they are infected and self-isolate.
Alex MacKenzie, a senior scientist at CHEO, formerly the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said more than 80 per cent of Ottawa’s wastewater is now showing the Omicron variant. It took about a month for the Alpha variant to show up in the wastewater, two weeks for Delta and just one week for Omicron, he said in an interview.
It’s “not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when” for communities across the country to see the same, said, MacKenzie, a member of Ottawa’s wastewater COVID-19 surveillance team.
“So, it’s sort of, as I say, the Usain Bolt as far as infectivity goes. The unanswered question is a degree of severity, but for sure it’s highly infective.”
Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, confirmed two active cases of COVID-19 on Baffin Island although it’s unknown if they are the Omicron variant. Travel to and from the small community of Pangnirtung on the island, where the cases have been identified, has been limited to essential trips.
“Once again, this holiday season, we must remain vigilant. It’s not time to let our guard down,” said Premier P.J. Akeeagok.
“We are seeing mounting cases of Omicron across the country and the statistics are alarming.”
Meanwhile, a source told The Canadian Press that the NHL is pulling out of the Beijing Winter Olympics, citing surging COVID-19 cases and 45 postponed league games since Dec. 13. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had yet to be made on the joint decision by the league and NHL Players’ Association.
Saskatchewan health officials said they will not bring in any restrictions even as COVID-19 cases are set to rise with the province expected to see about 300 daily infections in the new year.
Other provinces, including B.C., Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba, brought capacity restrictions for some businesses, entertainment venues and social gatherings.
B.C. has ordered bars, nightclubs, gyms, fitness centres and dance studios closed starting at midnight Wednesday.
Alberta has limited the seating for the world junior hockey tournament in Edmonton and Red Deer starting Sunday. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said large venues that seat more than 1,000 people, including sports arenas, will be capped at half-capacity.
Prince Edward Island joined Newfoundland and Labrador in announcing isolation requirements for all visitors.
P.E.I. Premier Dennis King said every traveller entering the province will be given two rapid tests and be required to complete them on the second and fourth days of their isolation. The province also introduced more restrictions with bars and restaurants stopping service at 11 p.m.
“To get back to some kind of normal in our province, we need to do this,” King said.
“We need to limit travel, we need to limit our personal interactions. This isn’t the time for parties, for gatherings or staff celebrations.”
Ontario, Alberta and B.C. are speeding up their booster doses for all adults as well.
Kenney said anyone 18 and older can book a third shot provided the second one was more than five months ago.
Ontario opened eligibility for all those who have had their second dose three months ago as of this week.
B.C. has secured large venues, such as the Vancouver Convention Centre, to begin mass immunization programs next month.
MacKenzie said the restrictions and a push for booster shots will “help a bit” because the risk to healthcare systems is high.
“It’s a bit like trying to stop the wind at present, but it’s better than doing nothing,” he said.
“Even a ripple in the ICU might feel a bit like a tsunami.”