Quebec is implementing new capacity restrictions for businesses because of a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant, while Ontario resists calls to bring in “circuit breaker” measures to contain its own outbreak.
The Quebec measures will restrict stores, restaurants, bars, and places of worship in the province to 50-per-cent capacity. Private gatherings, including Christmas dinners, will be limited to 10 people, reversing an announcement from just over a week ago that larger gatherings would be allowed. Office parties, dancing and karaoke will be banned. Premier François Legault said Thursday that he did not foresee returning the province to a curfew – like the one in effect from January to May of this year – but did not rule it out.
On Thursday, Quebec reported 2,736 COVID-19 infections, its highest tally of new daily cases in nearly a year. Mr. Legault said the daily total would hit at least 3,700 on Friday. Quebec has the highest rate of COVID-19 of any province, with 155 cases per 100,000 people – more than double Ontario’s rate.
Mr. Legault said vaccinations are not enough to stop transmission of the new variant and spare the health care system from being swamped. He said the province’s health experts have told him to cut contacts between people by 50 per cent. The Premier also said Quebeckers under 60 could start receiving booster vaccine doses in January, with a shortened three-month interval after their second doses.
Quebec’s Omicron crackdown included a ban on fans at Montreal’s Bell Centre on Thursday, where the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens were playing the Philadelphia Flyers. The team said the move came at the request of public-health officials and that it would update fans on whether some of them would be allowed in the building for Saturday’s game. The Canadiens said health officials had assured them the arena will be able to operate at “partial capacity” next month.
Quebec’s precautions contrast with the approach so far to the new variant in Ontario, where case numbers are also skyrocketing. Premier Doug Ford this week launched an accelerated campaign to give booster vaccine doses to all adults over 18 who are at least three months past their second doses. But the government has applied new capacity limits only to larger venues, including theatres and sports facilities. Those venues had previously been able to operate at full capacity, but are now restricted to 50-per-cent attendance.
Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, the head of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, told reporters on Thursday that Mr. Ford’s moves have not gone far enough to contain the spread of Omicron. He also released new modelling showing the province could see as many as 10,000 cases a day in just weeks. Dr. Brown, who is also dean of the University of Toronto’s school of public health, called for Ontario to bring in a “circuit breaker” of public-health measures that would cut contacts between people by 50 per cent, in an effort to blunt the worst effects of the variant. This, he said, could be achieved in part by restricting capacity in restaurants, bars and gyms.
The Canadian Press
Under a worst-case scenario, he said, Ontario could have 600 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units by year’s end – a level well above the threshold health officials have previously said would require cancelling non-essential surgeries. Similar modelling in Quebec has also warned that hospitals there could reach their COVID-19 capacity in weeks.
The number of Omicron cases in Ontario is doubling every two to four days, according to the science table’s numbers, and those who catch the variant infect 6.1 more people on average than those who become infected with the last known variant, Delta. Omicron will be Ontario’s dominant variant by the end of this week, the projections say.
In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick reported their highest counts of new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Nova Scotia, with 287 new cases on Thursday, closed all its public schools for the holidays a week early as it tried to contain the surge. In New Brunswick, which made a similar move this week, children are being sent home with rapid tests, something Ontario is doing as well.
Earlier this week, Nova Scotia said it had identified 40 cases of the Omicron variant, all related to an outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. New Brunswick, which has identified 14 cases of the Omicron variant, reported 177 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday.
Some reports have suggested those infected with Omicron suffer milder disease than those who become ill with other variants. But Dr. Brown said Ontario should not rely on early indications from South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, that this new version of the virus could be weaker. The population there is younger overall, he noted, and the country’s ICU occupancy and deaths are still rising.
Data from Denmark show that Omicron appears to be putting the same proportion of infected people in hospital as previous variants. Even if the disease turns out to be 25 per cent less severe, Ontario’s modelling shows, the province could still have 300 to 500 cases in ICUs by Dec. 31.
Ontario’s new modelling says a “circuit breaker” of restrictions, if it had been implemented as of Wednesday, could have kept the province’s daily new cases at just under 5,000, leading to just over 300 COVID-19 patients in ICUs by month’s end.
“Waiting to take action means waiting until it is too late to take action,” Dr. Brown said.
The circuit-breaker concept being proposed by Dr. Brown would include an aggressive rollout of about 250,000 booster shots a day in Ontario. The province has said it is ramping up to that level as it expands booster eligibility to everyone 18 and up.
The science table data says two vaccine doses still “likely” provide strong protection against severe illness from Omicron – but are much less effective against infection than they are with other variants, meaning vaccination alone is not enough to stop the coming wave.
Asked why Ontario was not heeding the science table’s advice on capacity limits, Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, pointed to the province’s new booster campaign. She also said the province’s new restrictions on large venues were not included in the science table’s modelling.
Ms. Hilkene said the province’s ICUs could handle another 600 patients now and another 500 in the event of a major surge. And she said Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, is watching the data and could recommend more containment measures.
While Mr. Ford said Wednesday he opposes a provincewide lockdown, local medical officers of health have already announced new restrictions of their own in hard-hit regions of Ontario, such as Kingston, east of Toronto, where COVID-19 cases are increasing at rates many times higher than those in the Toronto area.
On Thursday, Ontario as a whole reported 2,421 new infections, nearly doubling numbers from a week ago. There were 328 people in hospital with COVID-19, and 165 in intensive care. Of those hospitalized, 256 were either not fully vaccinated or their vaccination status was unknown.
Also on Thursday, Canada recorded its 30,000th COVID-19 death since the start of the pandemic. The country surpassed 25,000 COVID-19 deaths in May.
With reports from Greg Mercer in Saint John, N.B., and the Canadian Press
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.