P.E.I.'s chief public health officer said Islanders should keep their New Year's celebrations as small as possible as the province announced a record-high 169 new COVID-19 cases Thursday.
Dr. Heather Morrison said at a briefing Thursday most new cases are presenting mild to moderate symptoms in fully-vaccinated people, something the province says shows the COVID-19 vaccine is working.
Three people are currently in the hospital due to COVID-19. Morrison said another five are hospitalized for other reasons, but have also tested positive for the coronavirus.
None of the individuals are in intensive care.
The announcement comes as cases continue to rise. Over the last seven days, the province reported over 600 cases, an average of 86 new cases per day. That's over half of the cases that have been confirmed in the province since the pandemic began.
There are 680 active cases of COVID-19 on P.E.I. The province has had a total of 1,191 cases.
Morrison said most cases are related to travel or were close contacts to previous cases. But it's unknown where 20 per cent of cases contracted the coronavirus, which she said represents community spread.
She said the province will also no longer be able to identify and report exposure notifications, and that it will be using those resources elsewhere. Morrison asks Islanders to assume every gathering place is a potential exposure site.
"Although it is still early days and we continue to learn about the impacts of Omicron, we are doing many things right," she said. "It does appear that our high rates of vaccine and our public health measures are putting us in good stead and providing important layers of protection against serious illness."
Expecting zero cases is no longer reasonable, says premier
Premier Dennis King said at the briefing the province is ready to impose more serious restrictions, but that the fact people aren't getting as sick as they once did means the province can take a "different approach."
"[Through most of the pandemic], we were kind of in the position and belief that zero-case count was kind of our goal, and for the most part we were able to deliver upon that because of the measures that we had," he said. "But with the emergence of Delta first and now Omicron, zero is not a reasonable expectation anymore."
The premier said the province is trying to balance health and safety measures while trying to keep a sense of normalcy.
Morrison said P.E.I. will focus on the measures it has in place, and that the government will be looking at what's working in the province and other jurisdictions.
"There are harms when there's a total lockdown and we tried to limit our circuit breakers to very short periods of time," she said.
"At different points in the pandemic, we would've introduced slightly different measures. But we already have almost all these measures in place."
Supports for workers
In the meantime, the premier also outlined several support programs that will be available for Islanders, including a $500 emergency payment for workers impacted by the pandemic.
While people in vulnerable situations such as high-risk facilities will still notified by Public Health, Morrison said her office expects people who test positive to notify their close contacts.
Morrison defined close contacts as people whom the individual who tested positive spent over 10 minutes with while not wearing a mask during the infection period. They can include family, friends, co-workers and people in organized or personal gatherings.
Close contacts are required to be tested on days zero, six and nine. Those who are fully vaccinated must self-isolate for seven days from the date of the last exposure.
Close contacts who aren't fully vaccinated must isolate for 10 days.
Morrison said the province is exploring the possibility of decreasing isolation requirements for both cases and contacts.
There are over 5,000 people currently in self-isolation.
COVID-19 cases on P.E.I.
The province will be implementing a "test-to-stay" policy for some essential service workplaces experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19.
People who are close contacts and asymptomatic in those workplaces will be able to keep working if they get tested daily. When they're not at work, they must isolate.
Public Health has to approve the implementation of this policy before the employer puts it into effect.
Morrison said the policy will be used sparingly, and is not intended to be used in situations when there's only a single case that's not related to workplace transmission.
More information on how the policy will work will be provided on the provincial government's website next week.
'Last pandemic holiday,' says Morrison
Morrison said the last few weeks have been very challenging for people working on the public health system and Islanders at large.
She said early data suggests that vaccine effectiveness against Omicron is lower with only two doses. But it's higher with a booster dose, so getting the shot will provide additional protection.
Over 18,000 Islanders have received a third dose so far.
When it comes to testing, Morrison said P.E.I. has a limited supply of rapid antigen tests.
The province will be focused in providing those rapid tests to front-line workers, individuals travelling to P.E.I. who can't get tested at point of entry, children returning to in-class learning and areas in the province where testing clinics are less accessible.
The province said it will be receiving an additional 300,000 tests from the federal government in January, and that it's looking to secure another 300,000 from private suppliers that same month.
Morrison said it will take some time for the measures that have been announced in the last few weeks to start having an effect. In the meantime, she said Islanders should restrict their New Year's celebrations to small groups.
"This will be our last pandemic holiday," she said. "I think we will slowly march down the road out of this pandemic to an endemic state and we will have adjustments along the way.
"These next couple of weeks will be maybe a difficult march, but we will get there. So more than ever, let us continue to be patient and kind."