Here are the latest Omicron COVID-19 updates from Canada, and around the world:
- Ontario is speeding up COVID-19 booster shots for all adults starting as early as Friday and allowing people to book them three months after their second shot.
- The Canadian government is now advising against all non-essential international travel in the face of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19. Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos made the announcement Wednesday afternoon.
- Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the province will distribute rapid tests to the public through government sites and pharmacies, while also loosening limits on private gatherings ahead of the holidays. Quebec Premier Francois Legault also says he may reconsider his plan to ease indoor gathering COVID-19 restrictions.
- European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Omicron is expected to be the dominant COVID-19 variant in the European Union by mid-January.
Dec. 15, 4:33 p.m. ET
Ontario to speed up COVID-19 booster shots as early as Friday, cut capacity at large sporting events by 50 per cent
Ontario is speeding up COVID-19 booster shots for all adults starting as early as Friday and allowing people to book them three months after their second shot, while cutting capacity limits in half at large indoor events and sports venues, as part of new measures to curb the spread of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
The changes, announced Wednesday by Premier Doug Ford’s government, also include an expansion of rapid testing in the province, including take-home tests at LCBO stores starting this week.
Starting on Monday, adults 18 and over can book their booster shots on the provincial website or call-in centre, pharmacies and primary care settings. But as early as Friday, participating pharmacies can start providing boosters to all adults on a walk-in basis, the government said.
As of Saturday at 12:01 a.m., the government is also slashing capacity limits by 50 per cent at indoor entertainment and sports venues with a capacity of more than 1,000 people. This includes sports and recreational fitness facilities, concert venues, theatres and cinemas, meeting and event spaces, museums, galleries, zoos, casinos and gaming halls.
– Laura Stone
Dec. 15, 2:10 p.m. ET
Canada reimposes advisory against all non-essential international travel
The federal government is reimposing its advisory against all non-essential international as it tries to stop the growth of the Omicron variant, but it stopped short of imposing more significant travel restrictions that were also under consideration.
– Marieke Walsh
Dec. 15, 12:20 p.m. ET
Alberta will ease indoor gathering limits, distribute rapid tests to government sites and pharmacies
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced a program to distribute rapid tests to the public through government sites and pharmacies, while also loosening limits on private gatherings ahead of the holidays. Mr. Kenney said the five-packs of rapid antigen tests will be available beginning on Friday.
The province’s limits on indoor private gatherings had been among the most stringent in the country; unvaccinated people have been prohibited from having anyone at their homes, and vaccinated people were limited to two households. Now, the limit will be 10 people, not including children and regardless of the number of households that represents. The Premier described it as a “modest” change that is still more strict than most other provinces, some of which do not have any restrictions that apply to private social gatherings.
Mr. Kenney said the province remains concerned about the Omicron variant and is taking a cautious approach, but he said public-health rules must remain reasonable to ensure public buy-in. He said there is no appetite for harsh lockdown-like restrictions, which he said appeared to be the consensus among premiers during a call with the Prime Minister on Tuesday evening.
“None of them are prepared to move forward with significant additional stringency in their public-health measures,” he told a news conference on Wednesday. “They were all of the view that the Canadian public is more or less at the limit of their tolerance for public-health measures, that adding stringency right now just before Christmas — the second COVID Christmas — would invite widespread non-compliance.”
The Premier also questioned the value of a federal advisory against international travel, which was expected to be announced as early as Wednesday, when there are already vaccine and testing requirements that can make travel safe.
Meanwhile, on his way into his party’s weekly caucus meeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians should be cautious as they plan holiday gatherings.
“We’ve seen that people have been doing the right things,” he said. “They will need to be prudent and make careful decisions regarding Christmas.”
– James Keller and Marieke Walsh
Dec. 15, 11:45 a.m. ET
Francois Legault says he may reconsider plans to ease indoor gathering limits as COVID-19 cases rise in Quebec
Quebec Premier Francois Legault says he may reconsider his plan to ease indoor gathering limits for the holidays, as health officials report 2,386 new COVID-19 cases.
Legault told reporters in Quebec City today it would be irresponsible not to review that plan given the high numbers of new daily cases in the province.
His government has said the cap for indoor private gathering would rise to 20 people from 10 on Dec. 23.
Legault says that for now, he’s sticking with his decision to ease gathering limits because the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations remains manageable and within the health system’s 800-bed capacity.
– The Canadian Press
Dec. 15, 11:25 a.m. ET
Canada to advise citizens against non-essential international travel
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to advise Canadians on Wednesday to avoid non-essential international travel while provinces ramp up vaccinations and hand out rapid tests to combat the fast-spreading Omicron coronavirus variant.
Canada already has travel bans on 10 African countries because of Omicron concerns. Canada initially advised people in March 2020 not to travel abroad unless necessary but in October of this year - before the first Omicron cases were reported - withdrew the notice, citing the success of vaccination efforts.
Dec. 15, 11:20 a.m. ET
Canadians are experiencing pandemic fatigue amid the fourth wave
Experts say pandemic fatigue is being widely felt in Canada and are urging people to keep their guard up as cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant rise. They suggest politicians and public health figures include positive elements in their messaging to keep residents engaged in the fight against the virus.
David Dozois, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, said some people have become “desensitized” to COVID-19, and as a result, are experiencing “caution fatigue.”
He described caution fatigue in the face of the pandemic as demotivation to follow expert advice about COVID-19 and growing more tired of measures such as physical distancing, good hand washing and wearing masks.
“Early on, when the pandemic first broke, the alarm system went off, and we felt anxious because this was an unknown entity. And I think as time has gone on, you know, even something that is truly potentially dangerous, we start to habituate to it, we start to get used to it,” Dozois explained. “So I think it’s really the notion of kind of getting tired of keeping our guard up.”
– The Canadian Press
Dec. 15, 8:05 a.m. ET
Omicron COVID-19 variant to be dominant variant by mid-January, says EU official
The head of the European Union’s executive branch said Wednesday that Omicron is expected to be the dominant coronavirus variant in the 27-nation bloc by mid-January, amid concerns that a dramatic rise in infections will leave Europe shrouded in gloom during the holiday season.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU is well prepared to fight Omicron with 66.6 per cent of the bloc’s population fully vaccinated.
The head of the U.K. Health Security Agency, Dr. Jenny Harries, said Omicron is displaying a staggering growth rate compared to previous variants.
“The difficulty is that the growth of this virus, it has a doubling time which is shortening, i.e. it’s doubling faster, growing faster,” Harries told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday. “In most regions in the U.K., it is now under two days. When it started, we were estimating about four or five.”
– The Associated Press
Dec. 15, 6:55 a.m. ET
Preliminary evidence indicates COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against Omicron variant, says WHO
Preliminary evidence indicates that COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against infection and transmission linked to the Omicron coronavirus variant, which also carries a higher risk of reinfection, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
The WHO, in its weekly epidemiological update, said that more data was needed to better understand the extent to which Omicron may evade immunity derived from either vaccines or previous infection.
“As a result of this, the overall risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron remains very high,” it said, echoing comments made by WHO officials at an online briefing on Tuesday.
Dec. 15, 5:00 a.m. ET
China reports second Omicron case as study suggests Sinovac may not protect without booster
Health authorities in China have detected two cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the past week, as a new study by researchers at Hong Kong University suggests the most widely-used vaccine in the country — Sinovac’s CoronaVac — may not offer sufficient protection against the new strain without a booster shot.
China has one of the world’s strictest quarantine regimes, and both cases — in the cities of Tianjin and Guangzhou — were detected while travellers were undergoing mandatory isolation and testing.
CoronaVac is the most widely used vaccine both in China and around the globe, approved for use in dozens of countries, according to Sinovac. More than 2.3 billion doses have been shipped worldwide, the company says, with over 1.9 billion delivered to patients. If the current two-dose regimen is found to be ineffective against Omicron, it could set back global vaccination efforts and delay a return to normal in many countries as they roll out millions of booster shots.
– James Griffiths
Dec. 14, 10:30 p.m. ET
Ottawa plans to tighten border rules again, as provinces respond to rising threat of COVID-19 variant Omicron
The federal government is readying new travel rules that could be announced as early as Wednesday, after Justin Trudeau met with the premiers to chart a response to the escalation in COVID-19 cases, increasingly driven by the Omicron variant.
The Prime Minister held a call with his provincial and territorial counterparts to brief them on options Ottawa is weighing to make travel more difficult. He was also expected to urge premiers to ramp up their booster campaigns and consider tightening public-health restrictions.
At the same time, premiers are already readying their responses to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. These continue to be a patchwork of different masking, distancing and capacity rules, depending on the jurisdiction.
Governments are scrambling to respond to Omicron because data from other countries indicate it is more transmissible than other variants of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated as well as vaccinated individuals with low immunity.
– Marieke Walsh, Laura Stone and James Keller
Dec. 14, 8:25 p.m. ET
Pfizer doses provide good protection against severe illness from Omicron, data show
Early data show that the Pfizer vaccine is less effective against the new Omicron coronavirus variant but still provides relatively strong protection against severe illness and hospitalization from the variant, according to a major South African health insurer.
Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine seem to provide 33-per-cent protection against Omicron infection, compared to people with no vaccination, but the protection rises to 70 per cent in preventing hospitalization, the data suggest.
The report released on Tuesday by Discovery Health, the largest private health insurer in South Africa, is based on a review of more than 211,000 COVID-19 cases, including 78,000 cases since mid-November that are presumed to be Omicron, which has been dominant in South Africa for several weeks. The study has not been peer-reviewed.
– Geoffrey York
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