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‘Jury is still out’ on Omicron severity, Tam says. Warns Canadians to minimize contacts over holidays


‘We’re trying to get people to use this time to go and get their boosters and just reduce the contacts and that will get us out of this earlier at the other end of the wave’

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OTTAWA – Canada’s top doctor says the country is seeing the feared surge in Omicron cases and is warning people to keep their contacts down during the holidays because “the jury is still out” on the new variant’s severity.

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Dr. Theresa Tam said Omicron cases, which first arose in South Africa and then spread to Europe, were taking increasing hold here. She said there were 900 identified cases of the variant on Monday, but that likely represented just the tip of the iceberg.

“The cases of the Omicron variant are increasing rapidly, which is something that we probably anticipated would happen as we look towards other countries,” Tam said in an interview with the National Post on Tuesday.

She said so far Omicron cases in Canada have been mostly mild, but they have also been in age groups that have had mild cases throughout.

“The jury is still out on that front,” she said. “Our cases have also been symptomatic, but mild, some are asymptomatic, but the average age is actually still quite young.”

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Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, echoed those findings at a press conference Tuesday.

He said of the 4,600 Ontarians confirmed to have Omicron, only 15 were admitted to hospital.

“Now, admittedly, that’s in a much younger population that’s gotten Omicron. They’ve gotten it through social activities. They’re in the 20 to 30 age range, which has a low risk of adverse events associated with COVID in general,” he said.

More than 75 per cent of the people hospitalized across the pandemic were over 50 years old.

In total, there were just over 10,000 new cases reported on Monday with about seven per cent of tests coming back positive. There were also 13 new deaths. A week ago, on Dec. 13, there were just over 4,000 cases per day, but so far the number of hospitalizations has not risen dramatically.

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On Dec. 10, the Public Health Agency of Canada forecast Omicron could cause a steep rise in cases towards the end of the month, with more than 12,000 cases a day if the new variant takes hold. Tam said unfortunately Canada is on that path.

“That is the trajectory that I think we’re essentially following. The only way to change that is, of course, to reduce contract rates,” she said.

Tam said there were some encouraging signs from South Africa and the U.K. about the severity of the disease, but much was still unknown. South Africa’s population is younger than Canada’s and many people there have previously contracted the virus. The Omicron variant was only discovered in November and has spread rapidly around the world since.

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Several provinces have encouraged people to have smaller holiday gatherings and Ontario and Quebec have put restrictions on certain businesses. Tam said what concerned her about holiday gatherings was the potential for more seniors to be exposed to the virus.

“What we don’t want to see is this virus going into the older age groups,” she said.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, is seen on a monitor during a news conference on December 17, 2021.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, is seen on a monitor during a news conference on December 17, 2021. Photo by Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/File

Tam said it was best to keep Christmas gatherings small, to limit contacts and to take other steps like wearing masks and increasing ventilation. She also stressed that while vaccines might not be as effective against Omicron, they still offered protection against severe outcomes from the disease.

“This vaccine is great, people should get it. It will protect you from getting severe outcomes. It may not protect you from getting infected and passing it on which is another reason why contacts are so important and protecting those who might be at high risk.”

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She said booster doses could help restore some of the protection vaccines offered from minor doses. Alberta became the latest province Tuesday to lower eligibility requirements for booster doses to anyone over the age of 18.

Tam said even if the new wave was less serious with it spreading so aggressively the many new cases were likely to put pressure on hospitals.

She said that came as health care workers were already overwhelmed from the pandemic and were struggling to deal with delayed surgeries and treatments.

“People are tired. Some people have left the health system and it’s really very important for us to keep that going,” she said. “We don’t want to just wait and see. We want to be preemptive so that we can prevent the ICUs and hospitals from being heavily impacted.”

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Throughout the pandemic, holidays have been followed by spikes in new cases. Tam said in asking people to keep things small she was hopeful they would not see the same result.

“We’re trying to get people to use this time to go and get their boosters and just reduce the contacts and that will get us out of this earlier at the other end of the wave.”

Meanwhile, provinces are moving even further to tighten public health restrictions.

Quebec reported for a third day in a row a record number of cases of COVID-19. The province said there were 5,043 new infections and eight additional deaths. Hospitalizations also rose by 18 from the day before to 415.

In Montreal, Mayor Valerie Plante reintroduced a state of emergency, which had been lifted in August. The city’s 8,033 active cases are the most of any region in Quebec.

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Premier François Legault said he had not ruled out calling in the Canadian Armed Forces to help.

Legault wrote on Twitter Tuesday that Quebec like other jurisdictions faced “very difficult choices,” adding that he would have more to say on Wednesday. “What guides us is the capacity we will or won’t have to care for sick Quebecers in the coming weeks,” he said.

On Tuesday, British Columbia announced that starting at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, bars, nightclubs, gyms, fitness centres and dance studios would have to close, and all seated events would be reduced to 50 per cent capacity.

Indoor gatherings including weddings were being cancelled.

Several hospitals in Ontario have introduced stricter visitor policies amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by Omicron.

Unity Health Toronto and the University Health Network— two major hospital networks in the province’s most populous city — said inpatients with stays shorter than seven days would not be allowed visitors.

— With additional reporting by The Canadian Press

• Email: rtumilty@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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