Ford asks Ontario to ramp up COVID surveillance due to new variant

·3 min read

TORONTO — Ontario Premier Doug Ford has asked public health officials to ramp up surveillance and plan for "all outcomes" in light of a new COVID-19 variant that's feared to be more transmissible.

Ford also requested on Friday morning that the federal government ban visitors from southern Africa due to the new variant -- a measure Ottawa announced hours later.

The ban applies to foreign nationals who transited through a list of seven countries in the last 14 days, including South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini.

Those already in Canada who recently travelled through the region will need to quarantine, and be tested for COVID-19.

The new variant, dubbed Omicron, first emerged in South Africa and coincided with a steep rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in that region in recent weeks, according to the World Health Organization.

Global Affairs is also issuing an advisory to discourage non-essential travel to South Africa and neighbouring countries.

Canadian citizens and permanent residents arriving home from the region must get a COVID-19 test before they return, and will need to quarantine at a designated hotel until their entry test proves negative.

Ford had called for further measures.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we must also reintroduce point-of-arrival testing for all passengers arriving to Canada, regardless of where they’re coming from," he said.

But the federal government is not implementing point-of-testing arrival for visitors from elsewhere in the world.

Instead, they will need to comply with existing COVID-19 prevention measures to enter Canada, including presenting a negative molecular COVID-19 test, even if they are vaccinated.

Several countries, including the European Union, moved to stop flights from southern Africa over concern about Omicron.

Experts with the World Health Organization met on Friday to assess the risks of the variant, which remain largely unknown. It said the variant has some mutations, some of them "concerning," and early evidence suggests a higher risk of reinfection compared with other variants.

The agency has also cautioned against taking extreme actions like flight bans until more information is known.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also discouraged travel bans on countries that reported the new variant that was first detected in South Africa, arguing such bans have not had a "meaningful outcome" so far in the pandemic.

Public Health Ontario said in a statement that the new variant has not been detected in Ontario.

It said the province is tracking variants and monitoring for new ones, including B.1.1.529, and genomic sequencing is being done on 100 per cent of eligible virus samples.

Nearly all COVID-19 cases in Ontario are currently caused by the Delta variant, which drove a particularly deadly wave of infections in the spring before vaccines became available to most of the population.

Cases of the new variant have been detected outside Africa in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium.

The novel coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with potentially risky mutations, often die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadlier, but sorting out the exact dangers takes time.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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