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Quebec makes move to reduce the high transmission of COVID-19; Ontario revamps testing and isolation rules

These are updates from Thursday, Dec. 30. We have the latest updates from Dec. 31 here.

Students cross the street at Tomken Road Middle School as Ontario prepares for its third provincewide lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on Thursday, April 1, 2021.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Here are the latest COVID-19 and Omicron variant updates from Canada and around the world:

8:50 p.m. ET

Alberta extends winter break for K-12 students as COVID-19 cases grow

Alberta is delaying the start of in-person learning for kindergarten to Grade 12 students after the province recorded its biggest jump in daily COVID-19 cases.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the winter break will be extended to Jan. 10 because the highly contagious Omicron variant poses additional risk to health and resources.

“School authorities have told us they need more time to prepare and to understand what the evolving COVID situation could mean for their school communities, in terms of staffing and potential operational impacts,” LaGrange said during a news conference late Thursday.

“I’m confident that this additional time to plan will position school authorities for a successful startup.”

- The Canadian Press

8:16 p.m. ET

B.C. breaks previous day’s COVID-19 case record by more than 1,400

British Columbia is reporting a daily record of 4,383 COVID-19 cases, shattering the previous record of 2,944 set a day earlier.

The Health Ministry says in a news release there were 17,357 active case across the province on Thursday and one more person has died.

Hospitalizations rose to 211, with 66 people in intensive care.

There have been 2,825 cases of the Omicron variant confirmed in B.C.

The ministry also confirmed six new health-care facility outbreaks, including one at Mission Memorial Hospital, bringing the total facilities dealing with ongoing outbreaks to 13.

6:44 p.m. ET

Omicron is spreading in Yukon, territorial government says

The Yukon government says an increase in COVID-19 cases with 34 new infections reported Thursday is a sign the Omicron variant is circulating in communities.

The territory says the highly transmissible variant is spreading at household gatherings, workplaces and events among vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Catherine Elliott, acting chief medical officer, says in a statement that Yukon residents should limit gatherings to two households with small numbers.

It’s also “strongly recommended” that close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 isolate for seven days if they haven’t received a booster dose of a vaccine.

6:35 p.m. ET

Alberta breaks single-day record for new COVID-19 cases for second day in a row

Alberta is recording a huge jump in new COVID-19 cases with an estimated 4,000 infections identified over the last 24 hours.

For the second day in a row, the province has broken its single-day record for COVID-19 cases after 2,775 were logged yesterday.

Preliminary data released by the province also shows hospitalizations jumped to 371 from 349 yesterday, while intensive care admissions dropped slightly.

Firm numbers are expected at a later date.

Alberta’s top doctor says the government was holding a cabinet committee meeting today to address growing concerns about the highly contagious Omicron variant, which is driving infections across Canada.

- The Canadian Press

5:40 p.m. ET

Quebec imposes nighttime curfew starting on New Year’s Eve in attempt to curb COVID-19 cases

Quebec’s government is imposing a nighttime curfew that will begin on New Year’s Eve in an attempt to reduce the high transmission of COVID-19 across the province and ease pressure on the hospital network.

Premier Francois Legault told reporters the curfew will run from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for an indefinite period of time.

Legault says restaurants will have to close their dining rooms on Friday and serve takeout only.

Indoor private gatherings are also banned starting Friday.

The province first imposed a curfew during the pandemic on Jan. 9, 2021, and only lifted the health order on May 28.

Quebec is the only province in Canada to have imposed a curfew during the pandemic.

- The Canadian Press

5 p.m. ET

Ontario to push back start of school to Jan. 5; updates testing guidance

The resumption of schools will be delayed by two days and testing and isolation rules have been revamped, Ontario’s top doctor said Thursday as daily COVID-19 cases continue to break records.

Classes were set to resume Monday in much of the province, but the holiday break will now end on Wednesday.

Dr. Kieran Moore said the extra days will give schools time to prepare for several changes, including providing N95 masks to staff in schools and daycares, deploying 3,000 HEPA filter units in addition to the 70,000 it has already rolled out.

He said publicly funded PCR testing will be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or are at risk of severe illness.

- The Canadian Press

4:10 p.m. ET

Manitoba seeing higher rates of COVID-19 in health-care workers and younger people

Manitoba is reporting higher rates of COVID-19 among health-care workers and younger people as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads rapidly across Canada.

Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa of Manitoba Shared Health says 418 health-care workers tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

She says that is about seven times the number of cases from the previous week.

The province is also reporting a 32 per cent increase in hospitalizations, with a “sizable number” of young people receiving care.

- The Canadian Press

4:07 p.m. ET

Saskatchewan COVID-19 infections rising, but hospitalizations declining

COVID-19 testing and access to booster shots have made Saskatchewan’s premier confident his government can limit the severity of the pandemic without introducing new public health restrictions as the province sees rising cases, but decreasing hospitalizations.

As the Omicron variant spreads across the country, Scott Moe said the province is changing how it tracks infections because the symptoms of Omicron are much milder.

He said his Saskatchewan Party government will focus on hospitalization numbers while pushing vaccines and regular testing.

- The Canadian Press

1:50 p.m. ET

WestJet cancels dozens of flights as COVID-19 outbreak hits staff

WestJet Airlines is cancelling about 68 flights a day as it struggles to find crews amid the outbreak of the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Calgary-based WestJet will reduce its 450-flight daily schedule by 15 per cent until the end of January. The majority of the cuts are on U.S. and international routes, said Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman.

“We are struggling to find the staffing,” Ms. Bell said by phone.

There are 181 WestJet employees with COVID-19 and an unknown number in quarantine, Ms. Bell said.

11:06 a.m. ET

QMJHL extends holiday break until Jan. 14 due to rise in COVID-19 cases in Eastern Canada

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has extended its holiday break until Jan. 14 as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Eastern Canada.

The QMJHL said in a statement Thursday that it’s pushing back the end of its break to create a safe environment for players and staff, facilitate players’ return to school and allow them time to practice and work out.

The league was originally scheduled to resume play Jan. 7 after starting its break on Dec. 18.

The QMJHL says its regular season schedule will resume in the week of Jan. 17, with postponed games to be rescheduled at a later date.

The league said its updated COVID-19 protocols include a series of preventive testing before players and staff reconvene, and that additional measures will be announced in the upcoming days.

– The Canadian Press

10:48 a.m. ET

Quebec reports 14,188 new COVID-19 cases; Legault expected to increase restrictions

Quebec reported a record 14,188 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, hours before Premier Francois Legault is scheduled to hold a news conference on the pandemic.

Legault will be joined by Health Minister Christian Dube and the director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, for a 5 p.m. briefing, which is the time the government usually chooses to announce restrictions.

Health officials are reporting nine more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and a big jump in COVID-19-related hospitalizations.

– The Canadian Press

10:47 a.m. ET

Ontario sets new record with 13,807 COVID cases reported Thursday

Ontario has set another record for new daily COVID-19 infections, with 13,807 cases reported today.

The province is also recording three more deaths due to COVID-19.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says 965 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 200 people in intensive care.

She says the seven-day average of COVID-19 related patients in ICU is 179.

Elliott notes provincial data is being updated to distinguish patients in hospital or intensive care due to COVID-19 from those who were admitted for other reasons but also tested positive.

The numbers come as Ontario’s top doctor is set to make an announcement on the province’s pandemic response.

Also today, new rules take effect at long-term care homes in the province, putting a pause on access to long-term care homes by general visitors and day absences for all residents for social purposes.

Designated caregivers, however, may continue to enter long-term care homes.

– The Canadian Press

10:46 a.m. ET

As COVID-19 cases rise, Ontario study suggests Omicron is less severe

As the Omicron variant continues to cause record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases in several provinces, a new study out of Ontario suggests those infected with the variant are significantly less likely to face hospitalization or death compared with those who have the Delta variant.

In the study, Public Health Ontario compared Omicron cases with symptoms that emerged between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17 with Delta cases and found that, after adjusting for vaccination status and region, the risk of hospitalization or death was 54 per cent lower with Omicron.

The agency says Omicron appears to be the first dominant variant to show a decline in severity, but warns that due to its higher transmissibility, “the absolute number of hospitalizations and impact on the health-care system is likely to be significant, despite possible reduced severity.”

– The Canadian Press

8:42 a.m. ET

Phased restart ordered for B.C. schools amid rise in COVID-19 cases

7:09 a.m. ET

Surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations among U.S. children raises new Omicron variant concerns

Within weeks, the Omicron variant has fuelled thousands of new COVID-19 hospitalizations among U.S. children, raising new concerns about how the many unvaccinated Americans under the age of 18 will fare in the new surge.

The seven-day-average number of daily hospitalizations for children between Dec. 21 and Dec. 27 is up more than 58 per cent nationwide in the past week to 334, compared to around 19 per cent for all age groups, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Fewer than 25 per cent of the 74 million Americans under 18 are vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Omicron cases are expected to surge even faster across the United States as schools reopen next week after the winter holiday, experts cautioned.

– The Associated Press

6:00 a.m. ET

Health officials look for new metrics amid unreliable COVID-19 case counts

For much of the pandemic, daily case counts have offered a steady, if imperfect, means of taking the virus’s measure.

But a surge in cases of the Omicron variant is now swamping COVID-19 testing sites and forcing people to rely on at-home rapid tests, the results of which are generally not added to official tallies. This has caused those daily counts to become so unreliable that health officials are looking to other metrics for pandemic surveillance.

The scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, Peter Juni, estimates that the province’s daily count is now capturing just one case out of every five to eight cases in the province.

“It’s absolutely impossible to understand the numbers we’re seeing right now compared with the numbers two weeks ago,” said Dr. Juni, who is also an epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

– Patrick White

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