The Omicron variant continued to cause record-breaking COVID-19 case numbers in several provinces Thursday, which also prompted Quebec to impose a nighttime curfew that will come into effect on New Year's Eve.
Premier François Legault said the curfew will run from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for an indefinite period of time. Restaurants will have to close their dining rooms Friday and serve takeout only. Indoor private gatherings are also banned starting Friday.
The province first imposed a curfew during the pandemic on Jan. 9, 2021, and only lifted the health order on May 28.
"We have to act rapidly, the situation is evolving rapidly," Legault said. "We can wait for all sorts of studies and more details, but it's better to act and adjust a little later."
Quebec was one of several to exceed its record for new infections of COVID-19, reporting 14,188 cases.
Earlier Thursday, the research institute that reports to the government said its modelling predicted "significant growth in new hospitalizations and the consequent occupancy of regular and intensive care beds over the next three weeks."
Institut national d'excellence en santé et en services sociaux said its models indicated there could be between 1,600 and 2,100 COVID-19 patients outside intensive care over the next three weeks. The institute said the number of intensive care patients during that period could be between 300 and 375. The more pessimistic scenarios — 2,100 regular COVID-19 patients and 375 intensive care patients — would surpass anything recorded during the previous waves of the pandemic.
Ontario also passed its record set a day before with 13,807 COVID-19 cases. A new study from the province suggested those infected with the variant are significantly less likely to face hospitalization or death compared to those with Delta.
In the study, Public Health Ontario compared Omicron cases with symptoms between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17 with Delta cases and found that, after adjusting for vaccination status and region, the risk of hospitalization or death was 54 per cent lower with Omicron.
The agency said Omicron appears to be the first dominant variant to show a decline in severity but warned that, due to its higher transmissibility, "the absolute number of hospitalizations and impact on the health-care system is likely to be significant."
Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada said the latest provincial and territorial data show that an average of 1,892 people with COVID-19 were being treated in Canadian hospitals each day this week, which is 23 per cent higher than last week.
"Keeping infection rates down remains key to avoiding renewed increases in severe illness trends over the coming weeks and months, as well as to ease the longer-term strain on the health system," the federal agency said in a statement Thursday.
In Ontario, the provincial chief medical officer of health said publicly funded PCR testing will be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or are at risk of severe illness.
"We must preserve those resources for those that need it the most," Dr. Kieran Moore said of the PCR testing.
He said the isolation period will drop to five days from 10 days following the onset of COVID-19 symptoms for those who are vaccinated as well as children under 12 years old. Household contacts will have to isolatefromthose who have tested positive.
In Atlantic Canada, Prince Edward Island reported a single-day record of 169 COVID-19 cases.
COVID-19 has also hit Labrador's north coast for the first time, with 10 presumptive positive cases in the fly-in community of Nain, a town of about 1,100 people. Newfoundland and Labrador also reported 349 infections, setting another record for daily case numbers.
Nova Scotia said it will open eligibility for booster shots to those aged 30 and up beginning Monday.
WestJet Airlines announced it is cutting 15 per cent of flights through the end of January to deal with staffing shortages due to Omicron. The Calgary-based airline said it has had a 35 per cent increase in active cases among staff in recent days, with 181 employees affected by COVID-19.
The rising case counts due to Omicron have also affected back-to-school plans. Classes in Ontario were to resume Monday in much of the province, but the holiday break will now end Wednesday. Quebec said schools, junior colleges and universities won't reopen to in-person classes until at least Jan. 17. And in Alberta, the break has been extended until Jan. 10.
In the Prairies, Manitoba reported higher rates of COVID-19 among health-care workers with 418 of them testing positive for COVID-19 last week, which was about seven times the number of cases from the previous week. The province also said there was a 32 per cent increase in hospitalizations, with a "sizable number" of young people receiving care.
The federal government announced more than $8 million in funding for Manitoba to help people who have COVID-19 to access safe isolation sites.
"I think it's important to acknowledge that for some Canadians physical distancing is not that simple," Kevin Lamoureux, the MP for Winnipeg North, told a news conference.
Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the sites would provide a range of services including meals, wellness checks and, if needed, health-care supports.
Alberta recorded another daily record with an estimated 4,000 new infections. Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's top doctor, said she was taking part in a cabinet meeting Thursday to discuss the "latest developments and trends with the Omicron variant and the ongoing work to protect Albertans."
B.C. had a record number of cases as well, with 4,383 infections reported on Thursday, shattering the previous record of 2,944 set on Wednesday.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said mass testing and booster shots have made him confident that the government can limit the severity of the pandemic without introducing new health restrictions. He said the province is seeing higher case counts, but decreasing hospitalizations.
Moe said the government is changing the way it tracks infections because the symptoms of Omicron are much more mild. He said his government will now focus on hospitalization numbers and keep pushing for vaccinations and regular testing.
Also in Quebec, a COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison has seen 15 staff members and four inmates test positive for the novel coronavirus.
Correctional Service Canada revealed the outbreak at La Macaza Institution as it reported a total of 88 new cases among federal inmates across Canada. That represents a dramatic increase over the 17 cases a week ago, and follows other outbreaks at the Nova Scotia Institution for Women and the Warkworth Institution near Campbellford, Ont.
— With files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto, Lee Berthiaume and Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa, Virginie Ann in Montreal, Fakiha Baig in Edmonton and Alanna Smith in Calgary
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2021.
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press