Nearly every Canadian province shattered its daily COVID-19 case count record Wednesday, as the Omicron variant sweeps across the country and brings a level of infection not seen before.
After pausing the release of testing data during the Christmas holiday, some provinces and the northern territories helped provide a full view of the national surge in cases, releasing up to six days’ worth of case numbers.
The results are not pretty. Over the course of December, Canada’s case positivity rate has quadrupled to reach 20 per cent of all tests performed over the past 24 hours — a rate not seen before in the nearly two-year-long pandemic.
The number of active cases, meanwhile, now sits at nearly 210,000, an almost ten-fold increase from mid-November. And the seven-day average has reached a record 25,000 infections per day — nearly 200 percent higher than the peak of the third wave last April — with a new high of 32,180 cases reported Wednesday alone.
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Experts say the real number of cases is likely higher because some provinces are hitting their testing capacities and some residents are using rapid tests.
Health officials across the country have pinned the rapid acceleration of cases on the Omicron variant, which Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday is “quickly” displacing Delta as the dominant variant in the country.
The surge has prompted new restrictions in several provinces, which have also begun to address how the new wave will impact the return to school.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, health officials announced that schools would shift to remote learning after the holiday break. The announcement came one day after Nova Scotia extended the holiday break for students in that province by one week in order to slow the spread of Omicron.
British Columbia said Wednesday it would bring back students in January in a phased approach, with staff and students whose parents are health workers, as well as those who need extra support, returning to class on Jan. 3 or 4. All other students will go back to school on Jan. 10.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the delay will allow public health officials to assess the impact of Omicron and give school staff time to implement enhanced safety measures. Those measures include the cancellation of extracurricular sports tournaments and plans to control crowding at schools, such as through staggered recess and break times.
“We have to ensure we have the foundations in place to keep our schools safely open,” she said.
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Quebec, which topped all provinces with a staggering 13,000 new infections and 10 more deaths since Tuesday, detailed its plan to reduce isolation times for health-care workers who are exposed to or test positive for COVID-19 — a move deemed necessary to prepare for an influx of hospitalizations.
The province said that vaccinated health-care staff who test positive for COVID-19 could be allowed back on the job after seven days if they have no symptoms and that workers who are exposed to COVID-19 outside their homes no longer automatically need to isolate.
Currently, the Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that people who test positive for COVID-19 should isolate for a minimum of 10 days from the onset of symptoms or from the date they test positive, if asymptomatic.
Despite no change to the federal standard, Manitoba and Ontario have said they were considering similar measures to Quebec’s to avoid overwhelming their own health-care systems. B.C. said the same on Wednesday, while Alberta will allow unvaccinated health-care workers back onto the job under strict testing protocols.
Hospitalizations have begun to rise once again to October levels, with over 2,400 Canadians currently receiving care. Close to 500 of those patients are in intensive care units, a number that has stayed steady for months.
Experts say while Omicron is more transmissible, it does not appear to lead to as serious an infection as Delta, though studies have suggested it could be more resistant to existing vaccines. Third doses are now being recommended to all adults to help boost protection against the variant.
As of Wednesday, over 80 per cent of eligible Canadians aged five and over are fully vaccinated with two doses. More than 6 million booster doses have been administered.
Meanwhile, health officials in Nunavut extended a “circuit-breaker” lockdown, saying Wednesday that a rise in COVID-19 infections was pushing the territory’s health-care system to a breaking point. Premier P.J. Akeeagok said the ban on indoor gatherings that was imposed before Christmas is being extended to Jan. 17 as a result of the rising case counts of the Omicron variant across the country.
Libraries, gyms, arenas and churches across the territory must also remain closed, and restaurants are limited to takeout food only.
Stricter limits on gatherings and some businesses have also been reimposed in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and most of the Atlantic provinces.
The cumulative case count has risen by more than 100,000 cases in just three days, after surpassing the 2 million mark on Boxing Day. To date, Canada has seen 2,102,469 COVID-19 cases, 30,253 of which have been fatal.
The new wave of infections comes as the world is set to mark the two-year anniversary of the first reported outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019.
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that he is “highly concerned” the global circulation of the Delta and Omicron COVID-19 variants is creating a “tsunami of cases,” and reiterated his call for countries to share vaccines more equitably.
Globally, cases are also on the rise, approaching the record peak of 5.8 million weekly infections reported in late April of this year. Almost 20 million cases were reported over the past 28 days, according to Johns Hopkins University. The WHO said global cases increased 11 per cent last week compared to the previous week.
To date, more than 284 million COVID-19 cases and 5.4 million deaths have been reported worldwide.
— with files from the Canadian Press
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