The Quebec government imposed a snap shutdown on Monday, closing schools, bars, theatres, gyms and other gathering places with only a few hours’ notice, and people across the country clamoured for more booster shots and rapid tests to help shield them from the Omicron variant.
Quebec’s revived restrictions, unveiled at 1 p.m. and implemented four hours later, are now the strictest of any province. They include a work-from-home order, a ban on spectators at professional and amateur sporting events, and a plan to keep schools closed until at least Jan. 10.
“The situation is critical,” Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said as he announced the new rules just days before Christmas. “The explosion of cases is overwhelming.”
Quebec reported 4,571 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the most of any day since the start of the pandemic, although the true number of infections may have been higher in the spring of 2020, when testing wasn’t widely available. Nationally, nearly 46,000 cases were recorded in the week ending Sunday, up about 80 per cent from the week before.
The dramatic spike in cases in Quebec and other parts of Canada is being driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which South African scientists first identified less than a month ago.
There are signs from that country that the new variant causes milder disease than its predecessors, but Canadian public-health leaders have said it is too early – and too risky – to behave as though Omicron will carve the same gentle path here.
While Quebec opted for a near-lockdown, Ontario is focused on ramping up delivery of third doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which substantially increase protection against Omicron infection, according to early studies.
Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have opened booster bookings to all adults.
In Ottawa, as in other parts of Ontario, demand for boosters far outstripped the supply of appointments and walk-in slots on Monday.
The city’s public-health department tweeted on Sunday night that it had managed to find enough local health care workers and volunteers to create an additional 15,000 booster appointments over the holidays. By 8:15 a.m., the account tweeted that all those appointments were gone.
Nili Kaplan-Myrth, an Ottawa family physician who has been running large vaccination events she calls jabapaloozas, saw the Ottawa Public Health tweet and followed it with one of her own. She invited pregnant women – who have a higher-than-average risk of complications from COVID-19 – to come to her vaccination event at the TD Place arena for a booster.
Dr. Kaplan-Myrth estimated between 100 and 200 expectant mothers received a shot before clinic workers had to reserve their remaining doses for people with appointments, many of them teachers and other essential workers. “It was really heartbreaking to turn away a line of pregnant women outside in the cold,” Dr. Kaplan-Myrth said.
Even if it proves less deadly than previous variants, Omicron’s sheer transmissibility has already swamped resources for testing and tracing in some parts of the country, a problem that is expected to grow worse as public-health workers take desperately needed breaks over the holidays.
Ottawa Public Health warned on Monday afternoon that its testing sites were experiencing an unprecedented surge, and couldn’t keep up. Testing capacity in Quebec is already maxed out, Mr. Dubé said.
In York Region, north of Toronto, Medical Officer of Health Barry Pakes announced that, despite the provincial policy on boosters, most clinics would reserve third shots for people who are older than 50 or immunocompromised for now. Dr. Pakes called it an “ethical imperative.”
Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in a statement that Ontario’s booster rollout has always prioritized people by age and risk. For example, the province opened booking to people over the age of 70, health care workers and essential caregivers, among others, on Nov. 6, so long as they were six months past their second dose ― well ahead of other provinces.
Although older Ontarians theoretically got a head start, not all of them could snag appointments.
Jonathan Wolstenholme’s 80-year-old mother and 103-year-old grandmother became eligible for boosters in the first week of December, 168 days after their second dose.
Mr. Wolstenholme couldn’t find appointments on the public-health website in Hamilton, where his mother and grandmother live together. He put them on waiting lists at every local pharmacy he could find, but initially struck out.
“Their eligibility hit just before they decided that the government would open up these waiting lists,” he said. “That’s the problem. So we’ve got healthy 18-year-olds getting access to vaccines and 103-year-old, unhealthy women stuck.”
On Monday, he finally heard from a pharmacy that could fit his mother in on Wednesday. The volunteers at Vaccine Hunters Canada are helping him find a doctor willing to inoculate his housebound grandmother at home.
In British Columbia, where case numbers are spiking as well, some front-line workers have gone to great lengths to find a booster.
James Heilman, an emergency room doctor in Cranbrook, said he drove two hours to neighbouring Idaho in early November to get his booster from a Safeway in Bonners Ferry after failing to get an answer from the province on when he could expect this third dose.
It has since got easier for B.C.’s health care workers to get a booster, he said, but many coworkers in his hospital still rely on the community’s lone clinic to deliver doses at the end of each day that were set to expire.
The B.C. government is holding onto its previous commitment to give a third dose to the general population within six to eight months of their second jab, which for most adults will mean getting a booster in the new year.
Still, the province is ramping up its immunization campaign because more than 550 pharmacies can now administer booster shots, with another 500 or so expected to join by next month.
But many vaccination clinics run by local health authorities are shutting down for days over the holidays.
With a report from The Canadian Press
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.