Montreal public health says Omicron variant spreading rapidly, 95 cases in the city

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Montreal's public health director on Wednesday encouraged people to cancel parties at schools and at workplaces ahead of Christmas, as the city faced the double threat of rising COVID-19 infections led by the Delta and Omicron variants.

The "rapid increase" in cases is being driven by outbreaks of the Delta variant across the city's schools and by community transmission of the Omicron mutation, Dr. Mylène Drouin told reporters. She reported 844 new infections Wednesday and said her department had so far detected 95 cases of Omicron in the city.

Drouin said people should avoid in-person parties at work and at school over the next 10 days.

"In this context, clearly, our tracing is not sufficient, vaccination will not be sufficient," she said. "It's necessary to add an overall reduction in contacts."

She said gatherings of up to 20 people over the holiday period may not be a good idea, referring to the provincial government's plan to raise indoor gathering limits on Dec. 23. The limit is currently 10 people.

"We're facing a double situation," Drouin said. "We have on one side, the Delta variant wave that is being amplified by outbreaks in schools … On the other side, we have the rapid progression of the Omicron variant."

Half the Omicron cases in the city involved people who recently travelled outside the country, while the other half were among people who were infected in Montreal, she said. The majority of the Omicron cases associated with international travel were acquired in the United States, Drouin said, adding that there were five cases associated with travel to Europe and five cases linked to travel in Africa.

Drouin told reporters that cases of Omicron have been detected at two primary schools and two universities in Montreal. Younger people account for the majority of infections involving the variant, she said, adding that the average age of Omicron cases in the city is 32.

"Ninety per cent of the cases are people who have had two doses of vaccine," she said. "Eighty per cent have symptoms, but we do not have any hospitalizations or death associated with the Omicron variant."

Drouin said the Delta variant, which is the dominant mutation in Montreal, will likely be replaced by the more transmissible Omicron variant, adding that she expects the number of Omicron cases in the city to double every two to three days.

Quebec's public health institute said earlier on Wednesday it had detected 11 confirmed cases of Omicron across the province and 24 suspected cases. The variant has now been detected in every province in Canada.

Earlier on Wednesday, Premier François Legault said his government may reconsider its decision to ease indoor gathering limits for the holidays after health officials reported 2,386 new infections across the province.

"With 2,300 cases, it wouldn’t be responsible to not look at all possibilities," Legault told reporters in Quebec City. "But we have to keep measures that will have an impact on hospitalizations."

The percentage of positive tests in Quebec has also been rising. On Wednesday, 5.8 per cent of tests came back positive. The test positivity rate in the province was 3.3 per cent two weeks ago. In Montreal, Drouin said, eight per cent of tests conducted Tuesday were positive.

The premier said that for now, he would stick with his decision to increase indoor gathering limits on Dec. 23, because the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations was manageable and within the health system's 800-bed capacity.

The Health Department said 309 people were in hospital Wednesday, a rise of 16 from the day before, and 73 people were in intensive care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec.15, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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