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A medical worker at a drive-in coronavirus testing centre in London on Dec. 18, 2021.DANIEL LEAL/AFP/Getty Images

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

  • Leafs vs. Canucks game tonight has been postponed amid COVID-19 concerns. The Toronto Maple Leafs added five people to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, including head coach Sheldon Keefe.
  • London has declared a “major incident” in a move to help hospitals cope with the dramatic spike in Omicron infections in the U.K., while the Dutch government says it is imposing a tough nationwide lockdown starting Sunday. These and other measures are part of the Omicron response in Europe.
  • How infectious is the Omicron variant? As information from scientists on the nature of Omicron begins to pour in, Ivan Semeniuk looks at that question and more
  • Universities are changing plans for in-person winter semesters and many minor hockey programs are cancelling tournaments or postponing games and practices.
  • Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia all announced new COVID-19 restrictions Friday.

8:13 p.m. ET

Greater Toronto Hockey League postpones competitive games

Canada’s largest minor hockey association has postponed all competitive games until Thursday, effectively suspending play until the new year.

The Greater Toronto Hockey League says the decision is in response to public health concerns amid surging rates of COVID-19.

Starting Sunday until Thursday, the GTHL says all AAA, AA and A games will be postponed.

The GTHL is still scheduled to take its annual mid-season break from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1.

All teams may continue to practise and participate in skill development programs if they choose to.

The GTHL says it’s permitting member house leagues and the Mississauga Hockey League to make the decision whether to continue with games.

– The Canadian Press

7:55 p.m. ET

Raptors’ Pascal Siakam, Dalano Banton enter NBA’s COVID-19 protocols

Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Dalano Banton have entered the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The announcement came shortly before the Raptors were set to tip off against the visiting Golden State Warriors.

Siakam is averaging 19.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 3.7 assists this season, while Banton has been a spark off the bench in his rookie season, averaging 4.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists a night.

Precious Achiuwa rejoined the roster Saturday after being in COVID-19 protocols, while OG Anunoby was also set to make his return after missing 13 games with a hip injury.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the NBA, forcing dozens of players into protocol and cancelling games, including the Chicago Bulls game at Toronto this past Thursday.

– The Canadian Press

7:25 p.m. ET

Red Cross to deploy nurses in Manitoba, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said nurses from the Canadian Red Cross would be deployed to Manitoba in response to a request from the province earlier this week for help.

Blair announced the news in a Tweet on Saturday afternoon, saying that “the fight against COVID-19 is not over” and that the nurses would remain in Manitoba until Jan. 17.

Annie Cullinan, a spokeswoman for Blair, said up to eight emergency acute-care nurses will be sent by the Red Cross after the province asked Ottawa to provide up to 30 nurses for about six weeks.

The Red Cross said in a statement Saturday that it’s still determining the best places to send the nurses.

– The Canadian Press

4:10 p.m. ET

NFL reduces testing for asymptomatic vaccinated players

Only unvaccinated players and those experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19 will be tested, starting Sunday, under the NFL’s revised protocols.

Also, higher risk players have until 2 p.m. Monday to send written notice if they choose to opt out, according to a memo sent to clubs on Saturday and obtained by The Associated Press. The players will not be paid and the notice is irrevocable.

“Medical information strongly indicates that this variant is significantly more contagious but possibly less severe than prior variants, particularly for people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in another memo sent to clubs. “Our experience with the omicron variant is fully consistent with this expectation – while more players and staff are testing positive, roughly two- thirds of those individuals are asymptomatic, most of the remaining individuals have only mild symptoms, and the virus appears to clear positive individuals more rapidly than was true with the delta or earlier variants. In many respects, omicron appears to be a very different illness from the one that we first confronted in the spring of 2020.”

– The Associated Press

3:05 p.m. ET

Ontario reports 3,301 new daily cases of COVID-19; Quebec has 3,631

Ontario is reporting 3,301 new cases of COVID-19 today, as well as four new deaths linked to the virus. It’s the highest daily tally since early May. In Quebec, authorities are reporting 3,631 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says 382 COVID-19 patients are currently in hospital, including 294 who are not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination status isn’t known.

She says there are 154 people in intensive care due to COVID-19, which includes 81 who are not fully immunized or whose vaccination status isn’t known.

In the province, 86.2 per cent of residents aged five and older have at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, while 81 per cent have at least two doses. The province administered 168,923 more doses of COVID-19 vaccine on Friday.

Quebec health officials say hospitalizations have increased to 347, a jump of 35 patients, with 74 listed in intensive care, an increase of 12.

According to the Health Department, 88 per cent of Quebecers aged five and older have received at least a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, 81 per cent have received at least two doses and seven per cent have received a booster.

Legault, in a message posted today on Facebook, called for a Christmas truce: an end to social media attacks and a renewed focus on reducing contacts, getting a booster and doing what’s necessary to reduce the impact on the health network.

On Friday, Quebec posted a pandemic record for daily infections on Friday with 3,768 cases.

The mayors of Ottawa and Montreal both announced positive COVID-19 tests on Saturday.

Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said someone in her entourage had tested positive and she’d been isolating since Friday. Her office said in a statement she was double vaccinated and was feeling few symptoms and would continue her duties virtually.

As for Ottawa Mayor Jim Waston, he announced his isolation would continue for eight more days after a positive test. He had been isolating since Monday after a staffer had come into contact with a positive case last week. Watson had received a negative test but decided to continue isolating and get re-tested.

“Thankfully, I am feeling ok and don’t have any symptoms,” Watson wrote on social media.

Elsewhere in Canada:

  • Health officials in Nova Scotia are reporting 426 new cases of COVID-19 today. There are 296 cases in the Central Zone, 70 in the Eastern Zone, 35 in the Northern Zone and 25 cases in the Western Zone of the province. In a statement, officials say that due to the spike in testing and positive cases, they are experiencing delays in follow-up. They say public health will try to contact anyone confirmed as positive by the lab within 24 hours to provide information on isolation and testing. All cases are asked to contact their close contacts. Close contacts, including those who are fully vaccinated, must isolate for 72 hours and then get a lab-based test.
  • Health officials in Prince Edward Island are reporting 13 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday. Dr. Heather Morrison, the province’s chief public health officer, says positive cases have been linked to Whisperwood Villa, Belfast Consolidated School and Montague Consolidated School. She says initial tests for all other residents and staff at Whisperwood Villa, a long-term care home, have been completed and are negative. There have been 65 new cases of COVID-19 on the Island in the last four days and 488 cases since the start of the pandemic.
  • Health officials in New Brunswick are reporting 133 new cases of COVID-19 today and two more COVID-19 related deaths. There are 40 people hospitalized including 13 in intensive care. Officials say seven people are on a ventilator. To date, 30 cases have been confirmed to be the Omicron variant. So far 82.6 per cent of eligible New Brunswickers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 89.3 per cent have gotten their first dose, and 12.8 per cent have received a booster dose of vaccine.

– The Canadian Press

2:28 p.m. ET

NHL postpones Toronto vs. Vancouver game tonight over COVID-19 concerns

The Toronto Maple Leafs game at Vancouver tonight has been postponed due to concerns about COVID-19.

The Canucks have Tyler Myers, Tyler Motte, Brad Hunt, Juho Lammikko, Tucker Poolman and Luke Schenn, along with assistant coach Jason King, in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.

The Leafs are also short-handed with John Tavares, Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds on the protocol list.Tomorrow’s game between the Canucks and Arizona Coyotes has also been postponed.

– The Canadian Press

2:20 p.m. ET

As Britain’s Omicron cases surge, London moves to help hospitals

Britain reported a surge in cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant on Saturday which government advisors said could be just the tip of the iceberg, and London’s mayor declared a “major incident” to help the city’s hospitals cope.

The number of Omicron cases recorded across the country hit almost 25,000 as of 1800 GMT on Friday, up by more than 10,000 cases from 24 hours earlier, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said.

Seven people believed to have had the Omicron variant had died as of Thursday, up from one death in the UKHSA’s previous data which ran up to Tuesday. Admissions to hospital of people thought to have the variant increased to 85 from 65.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said it was “almost certain” that hundreds of thousands of people were being infected with the variant every day.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced a rebellion in his governing Conservative Party over the measures he has taken so far to try to curb the latest COVID-19 wave.

“Currently observed numbers of Omicron infections admitted to hospital in the UK are probably around one tenth of the true number because the data lags hospital reporting,” the advisors said in minutes of a meeting on Dec. 16.

It was too early to reliably assess the severity of disease caused by the Omicron variant, but without a further tightening of COVID-19 rules, “modelling indicates a peak of at least 3,000 hospital admissions per day in England,” they said.

Last January, before Britain’s vaccination campaign gathered speed, daily hospital admissions in the United Kingdom as a whole surged above 4,000.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” – which allows for closer coordination between public agencies and possibly more central government support – as COVID-19 hospital admissions in the city rose by nearly 30 per cent this week.

He said health worker absences had also increased.

“This is a statement of how serious things are,” he said.

Khan, from the opposition Labour Party, also declared a major incident in January, when rising COVID-19 cases threatened to overwhelm hospitals.

The Omicron variant is estimated to account for more than 80 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in London, officials said on Friday.

Johnson was due to chair an emergency committee meeting over the weekend with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have their own powers over public health.

A report in The Times newspaper said officials were preparing draft rules which, if introduced, would ban indoor mixing in England – except for work – for two weeks after Christmas when pubs and restaurants would be limited to outdoor table service.

People would be able to meet in groups of up to six outdoors, the newspaper said, adding that ministers were yet to formally consider the plans.

Johnson said on Friday “we are not closing things down”.

A government spokesperson said the government would continue to “look closely at all the emerging data and we’ll keep our measures under review as we learn more about this variant”.

The number of all new COVID-19 cases reported in official data fell to 90,418 from a record high of more than 93,000 on Friday, but that was still the country’s second-highest daily toll. Figures typically dip at the weekend.

Cases were up 44.4 per cent over the seven days to Dec. 18 compared with the previous week.

– Reuters

12:37 p.m. ET

NHL, NHLPA target Omicron by tightening COVID-19 measures effective immediately

The NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association have returned to tighter COVID-19 safety measures.

The league confirmed Saturday morning that it was adopting, effective immediately, new rules amid the emergence of the Omicron variant and the explosion of positive test results, particularly in the past few days.

Measures include restrictions on indoor dining while on the road, wearing masks while in club facilities and during travel, including when on buses, planes and at the hotel, and daily testing, expect on days off.

Additional pre-game testing may be implemented on a case-by-case basis, when an outbreak occurs within a team.

– The Canadian Press

9:07 a.m. ET

Omicron cases doubling in 1.5 to 3 days in areas with local spread, WHO says

The Omicron coronavirus variant has been reported in 89 countries and the number of cases is doubling in 1.5 to 3 days in areas with community transmission, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Saturday.

Omicron is spreading rapidly in countries with high levels of population immunity, but it is unclear if this is due to the virus’s ability to evade immunity, its inherent increased transmissibility or a combination of both, the WHO said in an update.

The agency designated Omicron a variant of concern on Nov. 26, soon after it was first detected, and much is still not known about it, including the severity of the illness it causes.

“There are still limited data on the clinical severity of Omicron,” the WHO said. “More data are needed to understand the severity profile and how severity is impacted by vaccination and pre-existing immunity.”

It added, “There are still limited available data, and no peer-reviewed evidence, on vaccine efficacy or effectiveness to date for Omicron”.

The WHO warned that with cases rising so rapidly, hospitals could be overwhelmed in some places.

“Hospitalizations in the U.K. and South Africa continue to rise, and given rapidly increasing case counts, it is possible that many health-care systems may become quickly overwhelmed.”

– Reuters

9:00 a.m. ET

What we’ve learned about the Omicron variant so far

When news of the Omicron variant first made headlines late last month, Canadian scientists were desperate for any shred of data that would illuminate what people should expect from a troubling new development in the course of the pandemic.

Just over three weeks later, the information is starting to pour in. Now, the challenge is knowing which results are the most reliable and relevant from a public-health perspective.

“All labs are under pressure right now to produce data,” said Marc-André Langlois, a molecular virologist at the University of Ottawa who heads up Canada’s Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network. “You want to make sure that the best possible science is coming through.”

But even given that caveat, there is an emerging profile of the Omicron variant and its projected impact that public-health experts say must be taken seriously. This includes key details about the variant’s transmissibility, its ability to circumvent vaccines and its likelihood of causing severe disease. All three of these in turn feed into the one variable that matters most, which is the rate of hospital admissions because of COVID-19.

– Ivan Semeniuk

Dec. 18, 9:00 a.m. ET

Dr. Paul Glover prepares to administer a vaccine to Yannick Iyamu, age 5, during a pop-up vaccine clinic at the Black Creek Community Health Centre in Toronto on Dec. 17, 2021.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

How do you get kids vaccinated in areas where uptake is low? Same creative solutions used on adults

How do you convince parents they should get their young children – kids 11 and under make up 12 per cent of cases of COVID-19 – vaccinated? In Toronto’s hard-hit northwest end, community workers have learned that sometimes it’s better not to mention vaccines from the get-go.

Instead, they’ve sent doctors and nurses to Clippers and Combs, a semi-regular event the local Black Creek Community Health Centre organizes where braiding and haircutting services are offered for free to residents (the population the centre serves is majority Black). While a mother is waiting for her daughter’s hair to be braided, which can often take an hour, a nurse might approach her to ask whether she and her child are vaccinated, listen to her concerns, gently correct misinformation and let her know about a nearby kids’ vaccine clinic.

On Friday, the centre hosted a pop-up at a public housing tower where they served free food and had a prize giveaway – and also offered vaccinations and provided information to parents who were taking a “wait and see” approach with their kids. There may only be a handful of “conversions” each time, but they add up.

While the highly contagious Omicron variant has put a greater urgency on vaccinations, the health care professionals and community workers in neighbourhoods with high case counts but low vaccine uptake have learned in the past year that they must sprint while also running a marathon.

– Dakshana Bascaramurty and Uday Rana

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