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People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test in Montreal on Dec. 22, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec recorded about 9,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, by far the most in a single day for any province, as Premier François Legault warned of exponential growth in infections.

The Premier announced the record figure at a news conference on Wednesday evening, just a day after Quebec registered 6,361 new cases, contributing to a single-day peak in Canada of more than 12,000 positive tests.

To limit Quebeckers’ contacts in an attempt to slow the spread of Omicron, the highly infectious new variant of the coronavirus, Mr. Legault announced that private gatherings will be restricted to six people or two household bubbles in the province as of Dec. 26. The same rule will apply to tables in restaurants.

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“We won’t hesitate to add new measures if we think it’s necessary,“ he said.

Quebec has already shut bars, gyms and movie theatres while tightly limiting restaurant capacity and opening hours. With the arrival of the variant, the province again has the highest infection rate in the country. The provincial public-health body said on Tuesday that Omicron is responsible for at least 80 per cent of new cases in Quebec, where the test positivity rate is a record 13 per cent.

Acknowledging that Christmas will be difficult for some during this upsurge of infections, Mr. Legault urged Quebeckers to be kind to each other over the holiday season. “I think we’re capable, as a people, of passing through this great trial,” he said.

Severe illness remains relatively rare in the province. Quebec reported just two new deaths on Wednesday, and admissions to intensive care remained stable. The number of Quebeckers in hospital with the virus – 445 – remains below the province’s 800-bed capacity and far below the roughly 1,500 admitted to hospital in January at the height of its second wave.

“What is key, really, is to look at what is happening in intensive care,” Mr. Legault said.

Still, the Premier has warned the sheer number of cases could overwhelm hospitals, even if each one is less likely to be serious. The province’s health system is suffering from a major labour shortage, in part because of pandemic burnout, which could weaken its ability to respond to this latest surge. In a news conference on Wednesday, provincial Health Minister Christian Dubé noted that most hospitalizations in the province are still from the Delta variant, suggesting the full impact of Omicron hasn’t been felt.

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People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 test in Montreal on Dec. 22. With the arrival of the Omicron variant, the province again has the highest infection rate in the country.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The government has asked for help from the Canadian military and the Red Cross, which has offered 300 workers to assist with vaccination and long-term care. Quebec has also floated the idea of requiring COVID-positive health workers who are asymptomatic to stay on the job and care for patients already exposed to the virus.

Mr. Legault faced criticism on social media this week for previewing his news conference more than a day in advance, warning of “difficult choices” ahead, which led to anxious speculation. He has a long record of ambitious policy moves in the face of COVID-19. The province’s first-wave lockdown was among Canada’s strictest, but its initial reopening also came faster and was broader than most. Quebec kept most schools open and was the only province to impose a curfew. It also led the way in delaying second vaccine doses to reach more people with the first, an approach other provinces soon adopted.

“We already have the toughest measures in North America,” the Premier said on Wednesday.

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People queue up for their COVID-19 vaccine booster shots at a clinic inside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Dec. 22. Toronto has pledged to keep some vaccination clinics open over the holidays.STRINGER/Reuters

Several provinces and cities across the country announced new public-health measures or economic supports in response to the rise of Omicron. Toronto pledged to keep some vaccination clinics open over the holidays and said in a news release early on Wednesday that more than 125,000 booster doses had been administered in the city over the past week.

Also on Wednesday, the Ontario government announced a program allowing business owners to apply for rebates on half of their property tax and energy costs during the current COVID-19 capacity limits. Queen’s Park cited restaurants and small retail as the types of businesses it was targeting, although the full eligibility criteria won’t be available until next month.

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Applications will open in mid-January, the province said, with rebates retroactive to Dec. 19. Business owners will also be able to defer provincially administered taxes – such as alcohol, tobacco, fuel and employer health tax – for the first six months of 2022.

Manitoba, meanwhile, announced a $22-million program providing grants to businesses affected by its latest public-health restrictions.

Nova Scotia is relaunching its paid sick leave program for workers affected by the latest outbreak. Under the temporary program, people can qualify for up to four paid sick days if they can’t work remotely and miss less than 50 per cent of their scheduled work time in a one-week period.

With reports from Oliver Moore, Tu Thanh Ha and The Canadian Press

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