Canada's two largest provinces reported record high COVID-19 case counts Thursday, as preliminary data from Britain indicated that people with the Omicron variant are up to 70 per cent less likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta mutation.
In Quebec, the provincial government reported 9,397 new cases and a rise of 28 COVID-19-related hospitalizations, for a total of 473. The province also reported six more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.
As well, exponential growth in COVID-19 cases was reported in Montreal, where a top health official confirmed that one of every five tests for the virus was coming back positive. Dr. Mylène Drouin said that 60 per cent of the positive cases in Montreal were among people between the ages of 18 and 44, adding that the city's latest data also confirm that 90 per cent of new infections involved the Omicron variant.
"The message is we are having intense community transmission in Montreal," Drouin told a news conference. "It's exponential — it's touching young adults."
Another big upswing in cases was reported Thursday in Ontario, with 5,790 new cases detected. That tally was well above the previous single-day high of 4,812 recorded back in April. Canada's most populous province also confirmed seven new deaths attributed to the virus. In all, 400 people were recovering in hospital, including 136 who were not vaccinated.
Despite the big increase in Ontario, an expert says the latest numbers represent a poor guess because testing is not keeping up with the Omicron-driven fifth wave of the pandemic.
"In all likelihood, you'd have to multiply these numbers at least three or four times to get a sense of what's actually happening," said. Dr. Fahad Razaka, a member of the province's science table.
Prince Edward Island also posted a new record for its daily case count on Thursday with 35. That prompted the Island's government to ban all wedding receptions, funeral receptions and wakes as of Friday at 8 a.m.
Records were also broken in Nova Scotia, British Columbia and New Brunswick.
Several provinces recently reinstated stricter public health measures in response to Omicron, including caps on social gatherings and closures of some businesses.
Public health restrictions were tightened Thursday in Iqaluit. They include a ban on non-essential travel in and out of the city. Officials said the changes were necessary because a case of COVID-19 had been detected in a person who had not left Iqaluit for more than a month, a likely sign of community transmission.
The Manitoba government said Thursday that COVID-19 testing is so backed up in the province that case counts have been under-reported. The government asked that only Manitobans experiencing COVID-19, cold or flu-like symptoms should seek testing.
Alberta said it is adjusting its COVID-19 testing rules to cope with the ongoing soaring rise in cases driven by Omicron.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, urged Albertans with COVID-19 symptoms to rely on the rapid antigen tests rather than the more accurate PCR tests to free up resources for those in higher priority settings, such as those in continuing care.
Meanwhile, the latest findings from the U.K. Health Security Agency add to emerging evidence that Omicron produces milder illness than other variants, though it spreads faster and better evades vaccines. The agency said that based on cases in the U.K., an individual with Omicron is estimated to be "50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital'' when compared with a person infected with the Delta variant.
The agency, however, cautioned that the analysis is preliminary and "highly uncertain'' because of the small number of Omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most cases involved younger age groups. The research said the protection a vaccine booster shot gives against Omicron infections appears to wane after about 10 weeks, though protection against hospitalization and severe disease is likely to hold up for longer.
The analysis follows two studies from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers that found patients with Omicron were between 20 per cent and 68 per cent less likely to require hospital treatment than those with Delta.
"Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,'' said Manuel Ascano Jr., a biochemist who studies viruses at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Canada's public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has confirmed the Omicron variant has become the dominant mutation of COVID-19 in several provinces. Infections across Canada have risen from an average of 5,000 per day last week to more than 11,000 this week, which is why Tam has called for urgent action to curb the spread of Omicron.
Meanwhile in Saskatchewan, the Opposition New Democrats asked why the government has yet to announce new measures to deal with Omicron.
NDP Leader Ryan Meili said he couldn't understand why Saskatchewan is the only province that hasn't taken any new steps, even though the government's modelling suggests Omicron cases could skyrocket over the next few weeks.
Premier Scott Moe later defended the province's decision to forgo stronger restrictions because of low COVID-19 hospitalizations and manageable case numbers. Moe said his government is tracking the situation daily and hasn't ruled out introducing additional measures about large gathering sizes next week.
In British Columbia, the province reported 2,046 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, eclipsing the previous record set the day before as the Omicron variant spreads. The province says 975 cases of the highly transmissible variant have been confirmed so far, with more than half in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2021.
— With files from The Associated Press, Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Nicole Thompson in Toronto.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press