OTTAWA — Canada's health minister says he expects the country to reach a time in the COVID-19 pandemic when provinces consider implementing a broader vaccine mandate to counter rising cases.
Jean-Yves Duclos told a COVID-19 briefing on Friday that such a measure was not currently being contemplated in Canada, but his personal opinion was that the country would get there at some point.
“We know that COVID-19 will be with us for many more months to come, maybe even many years,” he said in French.
Given how fragile the health-care system is in Canada and its aging population, Duclos said he thinks that type of measure will be considered by provinces over the next weeks and months, while stressing that it would be their decision to make.
"The only way that we know to get through COVID-19, this variant and any future variant, is through vaccination," he added in English, while noting that other measures including personal protective equipment and testing are important as well.
He also noted the high number of hospitalizations involving people who are not vaccinated.
"That's a burden on health care workers, a burden on society which is very difficult to bear and for many people difficult to understand," he said.
Italy on Wednesday made COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for people 50 and older in an effort to ease pressure on its health system and reduce deaths. France has also ramped up a campaign to push the unvaccinated to get their shots, with President Emmanuel Macron banning them from restaurants, cafés, cinemas and theatres.
Canada's chief public health officer provided a clearer picture of the impact of the Omicron variant in the country at the briefing on Friday, saying it is causing an "enormous" volume of COVID-19 cases in Canada, but severe illness is not rising at the same rate.
Dr. Theresa Tam said the average daily case count rose 65 per cent from last week, with an average of close to 42,000 cases being reported daily over the past seven days up to Wednesday.
Although testing capacity is strained in many areas of the country — meaning case numbers are underestimated — she said other indicators such as laboratory test positivity and hospitalizations are being used to measure the progress of the virus.
Tam said the portion of laboratory tests coming back positive is estimated at 29 per cent, indicating significant community transmission.
While evidence from ongoing surveillance and international studies suggests the risk of hospitalization from Omicron is lower compared to Delta, the sudden acceleration of the new variant is driving a rise in hospital admissions, Tam noted.
But although current daily case counts are 400 per cent higher than the peak of the third wave in spring 2021, she said severe illness is not spiking at the same "explosive" rate.
She said an average of close to 3,650 people with COVID-19 were being treated in hospitals daily, with almost 600 in intensive care units, representing weekly increases of 91 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.
On average, 39 deaths were reported each day.
Tam is urging the seven million eligible Canadians who have not yet received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine to do so, while also calling for everyone else to get a booster shot when they can.
She also said people should limit in-person contacts to immediate household members as much as possible.
"This might feel like a double marathon that we didn't sign up for," Tam said.
"But despite feeling tired, we should have a sense of achievement for the ground we have covered so far, for staying on track and knowing we can still draw strength from each other to get where we need to go."
Duclos told the briefing that he spoke with provincial and territorial health ministers on Thursday and commended their continuing hard work and “difficult decisions" managing the crisis.
Many provinces have brought back strict restrictions to stem the tide of Omicron cases, with Ontario requiring children to learn from home for at least two weeks and Quebec establishing a provincewide curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Some public health experts have urged Health Canada to speed up the approval of the Merck and Pfizer antiviral drugs for COVID-19 on an emergency basis, but Duclos would only say that he will have more to say about the department’s assessment of those treatments “in the coming weeks.”
The vast majority of Canadians have stepped up to do their part, he said, with more than eight million booster shots administered so far. He also said there will be enough doses this month for all kids aged five to 11 to receive two shots of vaccine.
Duclos and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc both took aim at Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who on Thursday blamed the federal government for lockdowns and criticized vaccine mandates, saying that unvaccinated Canadians should be accommodated through measures such as rapid tests.
“Almost two years into this pandemic, it’s hard to believe that Mr. O’Toole still doesn’t get it. Vaccines work and vaccines are the best way out of this pandemic,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc also stressed that while the federal government will do everything it can to respond to COVID-19, health care is ultimately provincial and territorial jurisdiction. He said his government would be speaking with premiers early next week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2022.
The Canadian Press