COVID hospitalizations hit critical levels as kids in B.C., Alberta return to class

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Children in Alberta and British Columbia returned to the classroom on Monday, as surging COVID-19 cases threatened to overwhelm hospitals in several parts of Canada.

Quebec reported an all-time high of 2,554 patients in hospital with COVID-19, a rise of 118 from the previous day's record of 2,436. Intensive care cases ticked down by nine for a total of 248.

The province also reported 10,573 new COVID-19 infections, while 26 more people died from the disease.

Quebec also opened up appointments for third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to those aged 40 and older on Monday, as the province prepares to expand eligibility to all adults aged 18 and up next week.

In Ontario, there were 2,467 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 438 patients in intensive care, Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Monday, noting that not all hospitals report data from the weekend.

The province reported 9,706 new COVID-19 cases, but Public Health Ontario has qualified that this may be an undercount because of a policy making tests less accessible. There were 12 more virus-related deaths, provincial officials said.

Quebec and Ontario are among the provinces that have delayed the return to in-person schooling as part of renewed efforts to curb the rampant spread of the Omicron variant across the country.

But the two westernmost provinces moved ahead with reopening classrooms on Monday, with officials arguing virtual learning presents its own risks to youth mental health.

While some parents in Alberta are relieved that students in Grades K-12 are returning to classes after an extended holiday break, many said they were concerned and frustrated about unclear instructions from the provincial government on how it plans to contain the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms.

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has promised thousands of test kits will be delivered to students and parents in that province over the next few days.

However, Edmonton Public Schools and the Alberta Teachers' Association have said there are still kids who won't get them until days after they return to classes, which could further exacerbate the surge of Omicron cases.

British Columbia's top doctor has said that Monday's return to school is "essential" for the emotional, physical and intellectual well-being of children, while reassuring parents that safety measures have been put in place to mitigate the risks posed by Omicron.

Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged on Friday that some families may feel uneasy about the move, but maintained that students are safer in the classroom than in some of the "unstructured settings that children are in outside of the school environment."

Also starting immediately, staff at National Microbiology Laboratory facilities across the country are being asked to work from home if possible.

A statement from the Public Health Agency of Canada said the move is aimed at protecting essential workers doing critical on-site diagnostic and lab research.

The work from home order covers staff at the lab sites in Winnipeg, Guelph, Ont., Saint-Hyacinthe, Que. and Lethbridge, Alta.

— with files from Paola Loriggio

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2022.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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