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Premier Francois Legault says the ‘exponential’ increase in COVID-19 cases over the past week is continuing and Quebec recorded about 9,000 cases on Wednesday, by far the most in a single day for any province

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People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test in Montreal, Wednesday, December 22, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Update: Our live coverage of this story has ended. Read the latest COVID-19 news.

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

  • Quebec Premier Francois Legault says that starting Boxing Day, gatherings inside homes will be limited to six people or two family bubbles.
  • The federal government is temporarily expanding the eligibility rules for its pandemic support programs for both employers and workers to address the current wave of capacity restrictions that fall short of full lockdowns.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized Pfizer’s antiviral COVID-19 pill, Paxlovid, making it the first at-home treatment for the coronavirus.
  • Quebec is floating the idea of asking asymptomatic health care workers to stay on the job if they test positive for COVID-19, and Premier Francois Legault announced that beginning Boxing Day, gatherings inside homes will be limited to six people or two family bubbles.
  • Israel will offer second COVID-19 booster shots as Omicron forces countries across the world to impose new restrictions days before Christmas.
  • A South African study suggests reduced risks of hospitalisation and severe disease in people infected with the Omicron variant versus the Delta one. The authors found the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80 per cent lower for those infected with Omicron compared with Delta.

11:57 p.m. ET

South Korea marks deadliest day of the COVID-19 pandemic as Omicron variant looms

South Korea set a new record for COVID-19 deaths on Thursday as officials warned that the highly transmissible Omicron variant could soon become the dominant strain.

In recent weeks, South Korea has been grappling with soaring infections and deaths after it significantly relaxed restrictions in early November as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said a record 109 people died in the last 24-hour period, raising the country’s total number of pandemic fatalities to 5,015. It said the number of patients in serious or critical conditions also hit a fresh high of 1,083.

The Delta variant is currently accounting for a vast majority of the newly reported cases in South Korea, but that could change soon.

- The Associated Press

11:38 p.m. ET

Japan to unveil record US$943-billion budget draft to ensure post-COVID recovery

Japan’s government is set to unveil its largest annual budget on Friday with US$943-billion in spending for the fiscal year beginning next April, further straining the industrial world’s heaviest debt, a draft plan seen by Reuters showed.

The first annual budget to be compiled by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government got a boost from COVID-19 countermeasures, social security spending to support a fast-aging population and the biggest-ever military outlays to deal with threats from China.

The 107.6 trillion yen [US$943-billion] annual budget for the 2022 fiscal year underscores the challenge Kishida faces as he tries to realize “new capitalism” with a cycle of growth and wealth distribution and restore tattered public finances.

- Reuters

9:45 p.m. ET

Health Canada unlikely to approve antiviral COVID-19 pill before the new year

Health Canada is unlikely to approve until the new year an antiviral pill for COVID-19 that the United States has just authorized, meaning the medication may not be available here in time to mitigate the worst effects of the fast-moving Omicron wave.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency-use authorization on Wednesday to Pfizer Inc.’s Paxlovid, the first oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19.

The treatment regimen, taken over five days, reduced the risk of hospital admission or death by 88 per cent in the high-risk, unvaccinated participants of a clinical trial, Pfizer said when it released the final results of the study last week.

Health Canada received an application for the Pfizer pill on Dec. 1, according to Anne Génier, a spokeswoman for the regulator. However, she said by e-mail that Health Canada is still waiting for some information from Pfizer, “and timelines for a decision will depend on when all the necessary data have been submitted to Health Canada.”

- Kelly Grant

7:20 p.m. ET

B.C. records highest daily increase of COVID-19 numbers

British Columbia has recorded its highest-ever daily COVID-19 case count with 1,474 new infections reported Wednesday as the Omicron variant takes over.

The Health Ministry says people who have received two doses of vaccine made up nearly 72 per cent of new COVID-19 cases from Dec. 14 to 20, while people who had not been vaccinated accounted for almost 68 per cent of hospitalizations from Dec. 7 to 20.

In response to surging Omicron infections, the University of British Columbia announced Wednesday that most classes would move temporarily online at both its Vancouver and Okanagan campuses starting in the new year.

Alberta is reporting 1,346 new cases of COVID-19, a daily figure not seen in the province since early October, for a total of 7,065 active COVID-19 cases, 4,687 of which are infections from a variant of concern.

6:48 p.m. ET

Quebec to limit private gatherings to six people as of Boxing Day

Premier Francois Legault says that beginning Boxing Day, gatherings inside homes will be limited to six people or two family bubbles.

Restaurants, which are already operating at half capacity and have to close at 10 p.m., will also have to limit groups at tables to six people or two families.

Legault says the “exponential” increase in COVID-19 cases over the past week is continuing and Quebec has recorded about 9,000 cases today, which will be reported in Thursday’s official numbers.

Earlier this week, the province abruptly closed bars, gyms and schools and warned that further restrictions could be coming while awaiting projections on the spread of the virus and its impact on hospitalizations.

Quebec reported a record 6,361 new COVID-19 cases this morning, with surging cases pushing the province well past 500,000 infections since the pandemic began.

In addition to two further deaths, hospitalizations jumped by 30 to 445, with 88 of those patients listed in intensive care — unchanged from the previous day.

- The Canadian Press

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People wait in line at a COVID-19 vaccination site at St. Thomas hospital in London on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.ANDREW TESTA/The New York Times News Service

5:00 p.m. ET

Omicron COVID-19 variant more transmissible but causes less severe illness than Delta, British studies find

A pair of British studies has found that the Omicron variant causes much less severe illness than Delta and that the risk of hospitalization is up to two-thirds lower.

However, the researchers cautioned that because Omicron is far more transmissible, the lower hospitalization rate will likely be offset by soaring COVID-19 case numbers as the wave of infections builds.

“It’s good news as far as it goes,” said Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh who participated in one of the studies. “These results could have come out a lot worse with a lot higher levels of severity, and they haven’t. That is good news but that only takes us so far.”

- Paul Waldie

3:00 p.m. ET

As booster eligibility widens, Peel’s top doctor asks younger residents to hold off on booking COVID-19 boosters

The region of Peel will continue to prioritize getting booster shots in arms of people who are over the age of 50 and those who are at high risk of hospitalization, the region’s chief medical officer Dr. Lawrence Loh said on Wednesday. He urged younger people in Peel region who have had two shots of the vaccine to hold off on booking their boosters and helping high-risk individuals find their slots first.

“I want to urge our community, to the extent possible, to get our 50+ population vaccinated. We know this population is most at risk if they don’t get a booster ahead of the Omicron wave that’s coming in,” Dr. Loh said.

“If you’re on a crowded subway, you give your seat up to those who might need it more. So at this point in time, given the capacity constraints, I’d like to urge you if you’re younger with two doses – please consider holding off booking and instead helping your older friends and family access a booster appointment as soon as possible,” he said.

Peel was one of the hardest hit regions in Ontario during the first wave of infections. At it’s peak, the William Osler Health System in Brampton had over 200 COVID-19 patients – more than any other hospital in the province. Brampton’s L6P area code had the highest number of per capita rate of infections until June 2021.

– Uday Rana

1:15 p.m. ET

Manitoba to provide businesses affected by COVID-19 restrictions up to $22-million; delays school return

The Manitoba government has introduced a new program to help support businesses affected by the most recent COVID-19 public health orders.

The province says it will provide up to $22 million to about 1,800 businesses. Funding will be based on the number of workers a business employs.

“This program will help provide Manitoba businesses the flexibility to deploy resources where they’re needed the most and sustain their businesses in the coming weeks,” Economic Development Minister Jon Reyes said Wednesday.

– The Canadian Press

1:15 p.m. ET

Ontario lab professionals working ‘beyond humanly possible’ to process COVID-19 tests

The head of an association representing Ontario laboratory workers says its members are putting in long hours and being asked to cancel vacation plans to handle a huge surge in COVID-19 tests.

Michelle Hoad, CEO of the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario, says 70 per cent of labs in the province were already short-staffed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Hoad says that has left remaining laboratory assistants and medical laboratory technologists working “beyond humanly possible” to make sure that COVID-19 testing and other diagnostic tests are completed in a timely fashion.

She says the recent surge in tests as the Omicron variant drives a spike in cases has laboratory professionals working more overtime and reporting burnout.

– The Canadian Press

1:15 p.m. ET

Pfizer oral COVID-19 pill gets U.S. authorization for at-home use

Pfizer Inc said on Wednesday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized its antiviral COVID-19 pill, making it the first at-home treatment for the coronavirus that is expected to become an important tool in the fight against the fast spreading Omicron variant.

Data from Pfizer’s clinical trial showed its two-drug antiviral regimen was 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness. Recent lab data suggests the drug retains its effectiveness against Omicron.

The agency authorized the oral drug for the treatment of high-risk adult patients and pediatric patients at least 12 years of age with COVID-19 outside of the hospital.

The company said it was ready to start immediate delivery in the U.S. and raised its production projections to 120 million courses of treatment from 80 million in 2022.

The Pfizer pills, taken with the older antiviral drug ritonavir, will be sold under the brand name Paxlovid. The pills are meant to be taken every 12 hours for five days beginning shortly after the onset of symptoms.

– Reuters

12:40 p.m. ET

Ottawa expands eligibility for Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit and wage and rent supports to regions with capacity limits

The federal government is temporarily expanding the eligibility rules for its pandemic support programs for both employers and workers to address the current wave of capacity restrictions that fall short of full lockdowns.

The changes will be in place until Feb. 12, 2022 and are retroactive to Dec. 19.

“We will be there with supports for the areas that need it,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a virtual news conference. Mr. Trudeau appeared with Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.

The Prime Minister mentioned that three of his staff have recently tested positive for COVID-19, as have three members of his security detail.

The changes relate to a package of measures that Parliament approved last week in the form of Bill C-2, which included provisions for cabinet to revise the programs later via regulation.

The federal government ended the $300 a week Canada Recovery Benefit in Oct. 23, which had been the main direct support program that went directly to individuals who were unable to work for reasons related to the pandemic.

– Bill Curry and Marieke Walsh

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Empty seats are seen at the Scotiabank Arena as Toronto Raptors take on Golden State Warriors in NBA basketball action in Toronto on Saturday, December 18, 2021. A provincial mandate issued yesterday dictated a 50% capacity at indoor sporting events in a bid to combat the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

12:02 p.m. ET

Raptors game against Bulls postponed; Toronto unable to field NBA minimum eight players

The NBA has postponed Toronto’s game at Chicago tonight because the Raptors do not have the required eight players available.

The announcement from the NBA comes a day after the Raptors added four players to the league’s COVID-19 protocols, giving them a total of seven players sidelined for novel coronavirus reasons.

Fred VanVleet, Malachi Flynn, Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa were added yesterday, joining Gary Trent Jr., Pascal Siakam and Dalano Banton.

It’s the third game the Raptors have had postponed, along with Monday’s home game against Orlando and a home date with the Bulls on Dec. 13.

– The Canadian Press

11:17 a.m. ET

WHO Europe head says 3-4 weeks is needed to answer Omicron severity question

Omicron will become the dominant coronavirus variant in Europe by the start of 2022 and three to four weeks is needed to determine the severity of the COVID-19 it causes, the World Health Organization’s European head said on Wednesday.

Hans Kluge has warned countries to brace for a “significant surge” in cases.

He told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday that Omicron, already dominant in Britain, Denmark and Portugal, was likely to be the main coronavirus strain in Europe “in a couple of weeks”.

Meanwhile, WHO does not yet have enough data on the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus to say if it is more transmissible than the Delta variant, an official said on Wednesday, almost a month after South Africa first raised the alarm about its emergence.

“We have not seen this variant circulate for long enough in populations around the world, certainly in vulnerable populations,” said the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, in a briefing with media.

– Reuters

11:02 a.m. ET

Ontario reports 4,383 new COVID-19 cases, nine deaths

Ontario is reporting 4,383 new cases of COVID-19 today, and nine new deaths from the virus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says 918 of today’s cases are in people who are not fully vaccinated, and 222 are in people whose vaccination status isn’t known.

Elliott says 420 COVID-19 patients are in hospital, including 311 who are not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.

Provincial data show 168 people are in intensive care due to COVID-19, including 132 who are not fully vaccinated or whose immunization status isn’t known.

– The Canadian Press

10:32 a.m. ET

Bars, theatres to close across N.L. as province reports 60 new COVID-19 infections

Bars, cinemas and theatres in Newfoundland and Labrador will have to close as of midnight tonight as public health officials try to beat back the spread of COVID-19.

The province’s chief medical officer of health today announced 60 new cases of COVID-19 and said there are now outbreaks in three of the province’s four health regions.

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says the entire province will move to a heightened alert level requiring limits on gatherings and household bubbles of up to 20 close contacts.

She says restaurants can operate at 50 per cent capacity with social distancing in place, but bars, cinemas and bingo halls must close.

Fitzgerald says the measures take effect at midnight and will be revisited on Jan. 10.

Officials are reporting 223 active COVID-19 infections in the province, and over 60 of them have been traced to the Omicron variant.

– The Canadian Press

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Canada's Jamie Benn (C) celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the Men's Ice Hockey Semifinal match between the USA and Canada during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 21, 2014. NHL players will not take part in the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing after all.AFP/Getty Images

10:16 a.m. ET

NHL officially announces that its players won’t be going to Beijing Olympics

The NHL has officially announced that its players won’t be going to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

The move, confirmed to The Canadian Press on Tuesday by a person with direct knowledge of the decision, comes amid COVID-19 concern that has seen an explosion of cases and 45 games postponed since Dec. 13.

– The Canadian Press

7:27 a.m. ET

Cathay Pacific to cancel some passenger flights in January due to operational, COVID-19 travel restrictions

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd will cancel some passenger flights in January because of operational and travel curbs at a time when the Asian financial centre has tightened quarantine requirements, the airline said on Wednesday.

The carrier declined to comment on the routes involved, but said it would immediately reach out to all affected customers and try to make alternative flight arrangements for them.

Cathay’s Australian website said it would only fly to Sydney from Hong Kong in January, with no flights to Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth, which had been destinations in December.

Hong Kong has tightened travel rules since the Omicron coronavirus variant emerged, and arriving passengers from many countries are limited to citizens and residents who are now subject to three weeks of managed quarantine even if fully vaccinated.

The Hong Kong government has a “zero-COVID” policy in line with mainland China as it hopes to persuade Beijing to allow cross-border travel.

– Reuters

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Quebec Premier Francois Legault arrives at a news conference in Montreal, on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Premier François Legault is expected to address the province later today and may announce new restrictions as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Quebec.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

7:05 a.m. ET

Legault expected to update province as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Quebec

Premier Francois Legault is expected to address the province later today and may announce new restrictions as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Quebec.

The province reported a record number of new COVID-19 infections for the third straight day Tuesday, with 5,043 new cases.

Legault wrote on Twitter Tuesday afternoon that Quebec faces “very difficult choices.”

Health Minister Christian Dube announced new restrictions Monday, shutting bars, gyms and schools, and warned that further restrictions could be coming once the government had received new projections on the spread of the virus and its impact on hospitalizations.

– The Canadian Press

7:01 a.m. ET

More Ontario health units reallocating COVID-19 resources in light of Omicron

More public health units say they are changing their approach to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing as cases surge due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Niagara Region Public Health says it is beginning to shift resources away from contact tracing to delivering booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which it says can “better blunt” the Omicron wave.

It says case management and contact tracing will increasingly be handled by artificial intelligence and outsourced support.

The Hastings Prince Edward Public Health unit says it will no longer be able to call everyone who tests positive within a 48-hour period, and will instead focus on responding to cases in high-risk settings such as schools and long-term care.

On Tuesday, Ontario’s top doctor said the province is preparing to change its strategy on COVID-19 testing and case management in light of Omicron, with guidance expected in the coming days.

– The Canadian Press

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the country's fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2021.KEVIN LAMARQUE/Reuters

7:00 a.m. ET

Analysis: The COVID-19 pandemic is now defining a second United States president

It’s Joe Biden’s virus now.

The COVID-19 pandemic unfolded during the presidency of Donald Trump and contributed to his defeat a year later. Now the virus is dominating the presidency of Mr. Biden, who faces a furious new surge in the number of new cases, new hospitalizations and new deaths, along with a resurgence of rebellion against governmental health restrictions and advisories.

Against that backdrop and amid holiday preparations that have already been altered by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, a grave Mr. Biden delivered an uncharacteristically sombre assessment of the threat (“We’re still in it”), along with assurances that “We are prepared today for what’s coming” and that Americans who have been fully vaccinated, who received a booster shot and who exercise caution can have a relatively normal holiday season.

“We should all be concerned about Omicron,” he said, “but not panicked.”

– David Shribman

6:52 a.m. ET

Israel to offer second COVID-19 booster shots as Omicron variant forces new restrictions worldwide

Israel is to offer second COVID-19 booster shots as fast-spreading Omicron forces countries across the world to impose new curbs days before Christmas.

Governments made urgent pleas for citizens to vaccinate as Omicron emerges as the dominant variant, upending reopening plans that many had hoped would herald the start of a post-pandemic era and unnerving financial markets.

Many scientists around the world believe that booster shots are key to limiting the severity of infection.

“We are seeing a waning of protection against Omicron infection. This wave is growing in surprisingly high numbers … More than 80 per cent of the panel supported this measure,” Arnon Shahar, a doctor on an Israeli Health Ministry expert panel, told Israel’s Army Radio of the second booster shot campaign.

– Reuters

6:18 a.m. ET

South Korean businesses protest against return of strict COVID rules

Some 300 South Korean small business owners protested in Seoul on Wednesday over the return of strict social distancing rules, urging the government to compensate them for financial losses and scrap its “vaccine pass” policy.

South Korea restored tough distancing curbs this week after easing them in November, as new infections and serious cases continue to make new records and stretch medical services, despite a vaccination rate of over 92%.

The measures, effective until Jan. 2, include a 9 p.m. dining curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than four people, who have to be fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated people can only eat out alone, or should use takeout or delivery options.

– Reuters

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A health-care worker pushes a patient across a footbridge into a hospital, amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, in Montreal, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

6:00 a.m. ET

Quebec considers asking hospital workers with COVID-19 to stay on the job

The Quebec government is floating the idea of asking asymptomatic health care workers to stay on the job if they test positive for COVID-19, while other provinces are considering test-to-stay strategies as a means of keeping the fast-spreading Omicron variant from putting a critical mass of nurses and doctors into quarantine.

Already, Quebec hospitals have started or are planning the postponements of non-urgent surgeries, Francine Dupuis, associate chief executive officer of the West-Central Montreal health authority, said in an interview.

But Ms. Dupuis and two unions said that the Quebec government is also looking into assigning COVID-positive staffers who are not feeling sick to hot zones where they would care only for patients who have already been exposed to the virus.

The idea was raised Friday at a meeting between unions representing health care workers and assistant deputy minister of health Vincent Lehouillier, according to a source.

– Kelly Grant and Tu Thanh Ha

4:55 a.m. ET

South Africa study suggests lower risk of hospitalisation with Omicron versus Delta

A South African study suggests reduced risks of hospitalisation and severe disease in people infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant versus the Delta one, though the authors say some of that is likely due to high population immunity.

The new study, which has not been peer-reviewed, sought to assess the severity of disease by comparing data about Omicron infections in October and November with data about Delta infections between April and November, all in South Africa.

The analysis was carried out by a group of scientists from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and major universities including University of the Witwatersrand and University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The authors found the risk of hospital admission was roughly 80 per cent lower for those infected with Omicron compared with Delta, and that for those in hospital the risk of severe disease was roughly 30 per cent lower.

– Reuters

12:00 a.m. ET

How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada? The latest maps and charts

How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? Check The Globe’s coronavirus tracker for daily updates on how the numbers are trending across the country and around the world.

Health authorities across Canada announce new cases at least once a week at different times, so the totals may not always sync up with the national total on the federal government’s COVID-19 page. Nationwide, there have been at least 1,907,846 cases confirmed and 30,085 deaths reported.

Here’s a look at the daily COVID-19 cases across Canada.

Daily COVID-19 cases across Canada
Seven-day rolling average

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