More provinces have reduced isolation requirements for people who test positive for COVID-19 Friday in an effort to lessen staffing shortages as the Omicron variant continued to drive diagnoses at record rates.
British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and New Brunswick are the latest to reduce to five the number of days that people with two doses of vaccine must isolate if they test positive for the virus.
“With rapid increases in numbers, we’re facing some challenges,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s chief medical officer.
“The illness that we’re seeing, particularly in health-care workers, is starting to have impacts on our health-care system and our long-term care system.”
Those who are still symptomatic after five days must continue to isolate until they feel better, and those who become asymptomatic have to wear a mask around others for an extra five days — rules also brought into force by Alberta and Manitoba on Friday.
Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the province is also requiring people who test positive from a rapid antigen test to self-isolate.
The changes come as the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus continues to drive high case counts across the country. Manitoba reported a single-day high of 1,494 new cases on Friday, as well as five new deaths. B.C. reported 3,795 new cases and three new deaths. (Alberta did not announce new numbers during its live update Friday; it will resume regular reporting on Jan. 4.)
Early research suggests the Omicron variant causes less severe outcomes than previous strains. But experts say the sheer number of cases — caused by Omicron’s high transmissibility — threaten to overrun the health-care system because more people will be hospitalized and more health workers will be infected.
New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said her province is also experiencing staffing shortages in the health-care system due to Omicron. “We expect the situation will become even more challenging as we live through this latest wave of COVID-19,” she said.
In response to the surging COVID-19 case numbers, the province’s hospitals are moving to urgent and emergency services only. That means people in New Brunswick can expect to see “non-urgent and elective surgeries, procedures and lab services cancelled,” Shephard said.
During the same news conference, Premier Blaine Higgs announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 using a rapid test and was waiting for confirmation via a more accurate PCR test. He said he was experiencing only mild symptoms.
New Brunswick reported a record 682 cases of COVID-19 on Friday. Due to the influx of new infections, the province announced it will limit access to its PCR tests starting Tuesday to only those considered at highest risk of the virus, including people who live in congregate-care settings and members of the general public who are 50 or older.
New Brunswick is also pushing back the resumption of in-person learning by 11 days, with students to learn virtually until Jan. 21.
— From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 8 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
For more details on the situation in your province and territory — including the latest on hospitalizations and ICU capacity, as well as details on how provinces are handling surging demand for tests — click through to the local coverage below. With testing capacity strained, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will begin to report more precise data that separates the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also happen to test positive.
Nova Scotia reported 618 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing its total number of active infections to 5,117. The number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 rose to 34 — up from 25 on Thursday — including four people in intensive care.
The update comes a day after the province said it would ramp up its COVID-19 vaccine booster program. Starting next week, Nova Scotia will accelerate its descending age-based approach for boosters to include those 30 years of age and older, Premier Tim Houston told reporters. About 500,000 people aged 30 to 49 will become eligible for a booster in January.
Prince Edward Island reported 175 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, a new single-day record. There are currently 814 active cases in the province. Three people were in hospital because of the disease, while five other patients in hospital for non-COVID-19 reasons have tested positive.
Meanwhile, health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador reported a single-day record of 431 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, as well as one additional death. There were 1,746 active reported infections in the province.
Ontario on Friday saw 16,713 new cases of COVID-19 and 15 additional deaths. The update comes a day after the top health official announced the province was delaying the start of school by two days and revamping testing and isolation rules, as daily COVID-19 cases continue to break records. Classes were set to resume Monday in much of the province, but the holiday break will now end on Wednesday.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore also announced on Thursday that publicly funded PCR testing will now be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or those at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
In Quebec, new restrictions and a curfew will go into effect later Friday after an announcement from Premer François Legault on Thursday. The changes come into effect as health officials in the province reported 16,461 new cases of COVID-19 — another high — and 13 additional deaths.
Saskatchewan reported 735 new cases on Friday, a new daily high. This comes a day after Premier Scott Moe said the government is changing the metric of how it tracks COVID-19 infections as the province sees rising cases, but decreasing hospitalizations. Moe said he won’t bring in any new public health orders or restrictions because vaccines and regular testing are lowering the number of deadly health conditions caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
In the North, Nunavut on Friday reported another 40 cases of COVID-19. Premier P.J. Akeeagok earlier this week announced an extension of restrictions as the health system faced increasing strain. The Northwest Territories, which is delaying a return to school, reported 42 new cases. Yukon reported 26 new cases and one additional death.
— From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 6:30 p.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of Friday evening, roughly 287.8 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.4 million.
In the Middle East, Israel has begun delivering a fourth vaccine dose for people most vulnerable to coronavirus, becoming one of the first countries to do so. The country will administer a fourth dose of the vaccine to individuals with weakened immune systems along with elderly residents and employees in care homes.
The rollout of the fourth dose began at Israel’s Sheba Medical Center on Friday morning and was administered to heart and lung transplant patients.
In Europe, Paris region health authorities have instructed hospitals to cancel more non-urgent medical procedures to free up intensive care beds for the growing influx of people gravely sick with COVID-19. The regional health authority said Friday that it expects within days to surge past the mark of 50 per cent of intensive care beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
Britain has approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill for patients over the age of 18 years who have mild to moderate infection and are at high risk of their illness worsening. The approval comes as the country scrambles to build its defences amid rapidly increasing case numbers. Based on data, the pill, Paxlovid, is most effective when taken during the early stages of COVID-19, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said on Friday, recommending that the drug be used within five days of the onset of symptoms.
Confirmed new daily cases in the U.K. hit another record on Friday at 189,846, and the government reported a further 203 deaths. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 rose to 12,395, up 68 per cent from a week earlier.
In Africa, South Africa has lifted a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew on people’s movement with immediate effect, believing the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant.
As of today the cumulative number of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> cases identified in SA is 3 446 532 with 12 979 new cases reported. Today 126 deaths have been reported bringing the total to 91 061 deaths. The cumulative number of recoveries now stand at 3 159 143 with a recovery rate of 91,7% <a href=”https://t.co/bJftLs1qro”>pic.twitter.com/bJftLs1qro</a>
In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines will impose tighter curbs in the capital region for the next two weeks, the acting presidential spokesperson said on Friday, to try to limit infections by the Omicron variant. The health ministry on Friday recorded 2,961 new coronavirus infections, a two-month high, and reported a positivity rate of 10.3 per cent.
The region including the capital Manila is an urban sprawl of 16 cities that is home to more than 13 million people. It will be placed under the third part of a five-scale alert system on Jan. 3 to 15, spokesperson Karlo Nograles said.
New coronavirus infections soared again in Australia on Friday to a record of more than 32,000, just days after surpassing 10,000 for the first time. While hospitalizations and deaths have been increasing from the surge, so far they haven’t reached comparative levels seen in previous outbreaks.
Meanwhile, South Korea says it will extend its toughest distancing rules for another two weeks to try to lower critical cases and guard against the Omicron variant.
In the Americas, the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine caused mostly mild side-effects in children aged five to 11 years, according to data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.
Meanwhile, thousands of flights within the United States and internationally were delayed or cancelled on Friday, adding to the travel disruptions during the holiday week due to adverse weather and rising cases of the Omicron variant.
— From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 7:30 p.m. ET