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Omicron COVID-19 variant casts shadow over hopes for Christmas comeback in Canada –



Megan Scheffers waited until July to celebrate Christmas with her kids after the COVID-19 pandemic kept them apart last winter, but she says decorating candy log cabins just wasn’t the same in the dead of summer.

She was hoping to make up for missed traditions this year as two of her three children booked mid-December tickets to fly to Nova Scotia from the Netherlands, where they live with their father.

But as the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus threatens to upend the holiday season, Scheffers said she’s worried her 12-year-old and nine-year-old may not make it to Halifax to open their presents.

Read more:

Travel restrictions and Omicron: What’s changing in Canada, U.S.

“All of the decorations, they’re still packed away, because I wanted to pull them out when they arrive so we can do it together,” Scheffers said.

“Last year, I didn’t even put a tree up. Is this going to be year number two without a tree ? and without my children?”

Scheffers is among many Canadians whose holiday plans hang in the balance as mounting anxiety about the Omicron variant dampens excitement for a vaccine-protected comeback of Christmas merriment.

Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at University of Saskatchewan, said winter festivities may have to be scaled back as Omicron stokes concerns about the safety of holiday travel and gatherings.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Omicron cases continue to be reported across Canada'

COVID-19: Omicron cases continue to be reported across Canada

COVID-19: Omicron cases continue to be reported across Canada

But with so much still unknown about the virus mutation, Muhajarine said there’s still hope of salvaging the holiday spirit, encouraging revellers to see how the situation unfolds before scrapping their celebrations.

“I think it’s prudent to take a more cautious, measured approach,” he said. “But wait and see closer to Christmas Day or New Year’s Day before you finalize those plans.”

Some scientists have suggested Omicron could be more contagious than other strains of the virus, but Muhajarine said it could take weeks to determine the implications of the new variant, including whether it causes severe illness and whether it can overcome immunity provided by vaccination or infection.

Read more:

Don’t wait for potential Omicron booster — Delta still dominant, top doctors say

He added that while Omicron has been linked to a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases in South Africa, it’s too early to predict how the variant will spread in Canada, which has a much higher rate of vaccination.

What is clear is that the uncertainty could pose complications for those planning to spend the holidays abroad now that Canada and a host of other countries have tightened border measures in response to the variant’s spread, said Muhajarine, warning that international travellers risk getting tangled in testing and quarantine requirements to reach their destination.

Visiting family and friends within Canada is a safer bet, he said, but he suggested that visitors take rapid antigen tests before they arrive and after they leave as an added precaution.

Muhajarine said hosts should also be prepared to rearrange their Christmas dinner tables as provinces roll out their COVID-19 policies for the holiday season.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s new travel rules for incoming air travellers'

Canada’s new travel rules for incoming air travellers

Canada’s new travel rules for incoming air travellers

New Brunswick entered the first phase of its so-called winter action plan on Sunday, which allows for indoor household gatherings of up to 20 people, but the province has advised against inviting individuals who have chosen not to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Ontario officials have indicated that they intend to stick with their 25-person limit on indoor get-togethers. Quebec is expected to issue its holiday recommendations this week, but Premier Francois Legault has signalled that he hopes to increase indoor gathering limits to 20 or 25 people, up from the current cap of 10.

For his part, Muhajarine endorsed even more intimate celebrations with single-digit guest lists, and making full vaccination a condition of attendance, to reduce the risk of making this Christmas a loved one’s last.

Read more:

Holiday COVID-19 precautions depend on vaccination status, symptoms: Ontario top doctor

“That is how we can have a safe and smart Christmas this year, and hopefully, next year it will be different.”

If that sentiment sounds familiar, it may be because it echoes a common refrain among public health officials who for nearly two years have been entreating Canadians to make short-term sacrifices in the service of a brighter future.

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at University of Toronto Scarborough, worries that the emergence of the Omicron variant just in time for the holidays may mark a tipping point in people’s patience for such promises, hardening pandemic fatigue into “depression.”

“We thought we were finally going to get the chance to have a Christmas. If that gets taken away from us, I think it’s a little extra insult to the injury,” said Joordens.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Deadline approaching for second dose in time for Christmas'

COVID-19: Deadline approaching for second dose in time for Christmas

COVID-19: Deadline approaching for second dose in time for Christmas – Nov 15, 2021

“I think we’re starting to feel a hint of these depressive feelings that nothing we can do really changes anything, and that’s a scary road to start going down.”

Alexandra Martino, a 29-year-old social media manager in London, said she’s determined to maintain her holiday cheer as she prepares to fly across the pond to see her family in Toronto for the first time since last Christmas. This despite knowing there’s a chance that Omicron could usher in a new wave of holiday disruptions in the week leading up to her flight.

“I just have to stay positive and optimistic, and just keep thinking, ‘I’m totally going home. I’m totally going home,”’ until something shows up and says, ‘You actually cannot.’“

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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Amid Omicron, 700,000 Canadians flew abroad in December – CTV News



For many Canadians, the Omicron variant wasn’t going to stop their holiday travel plans.

Despite the federal government’s advisory against travelling outside of Canada amid surging COVID-19 cases taking effect midway through December, last month saw more international travel to and from Canada than any other period since the start of the pandemic.

Data collected by the Canada Border Services Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that 742,400 Canadians flew back into the country through Canadian airports in December. That’s a nearly eight-fold increase from December 2020, which only saw 93,800 Canadian travellers.

The week of Dec. 27 to Jan. 2, right after Christmas, saw the highest volume of travel into Canada. There were 215,665 Canadian citizens who returned to Canada by air that week.

For foreign nationals flying into Canada, Dec. 20 to 26 was the busiest week for travel. The data says 125,526 foreign nationals flew into the country that week and 352,900 for the entire month of December.

Although air travel appears to have rebounded significantly, these numbers are still a far cry from December 2019, which saw over 1.1 million Canadians and 577,800 foreign nationals travel by air.

At the land border, there were 608,900 Canadians returning from the U.S. in December, which is up four times from the previous year. Americans also took 291,600 trips to Canada that month.

In response to rising COVID-19 cases driven by Omicron, the federal government on Dec. 15 issued an advisory urging Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel outside of the country. The feds also tightened testing requirements at the border on Dec. 21, once again mandating that all travellers entering Canada present a negative molecular test result, regardless of trip length or vaccination status.

Cross-border trips also plummeted after the testing requirement went into effect. In the first 20 days of December, 24,600 Canadians on average returned from the U.S. After Dec. 21, the average fell to 10,600, less than half of what it was earlier in the month.

Travellers returning to Canada by air from any country other than the U.S. may also be randomly selected to undergo a PCR test on arrival. But as provinces struggle with their own PCR testing capacity, airports and airlines say testing arrival testing is not the best use of resources and have called on the federal government to drop the requirement.

On the U.S. side, the Department of Homeland Security now requires Canadians and other foreign travellers entering through its land borders to be fully vaccinated as of Saturday. Foreign travellers flying into the U.S. had already been required to present proof of vaccination.

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Pope confers lay ministries on women, formalising recognition of roles



Pope Francis on Sunday for the first time conferred the lay Roman Catholic ministries of lector and catechist on women, roles that previously many had carried out without institutional recognition.

He conferred the ministries at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, where, in an apparent reference to resistance to change by some conservative, he criticised those who need to have rigid regulations and “more rules” in order to find God.

Last year, Francis changed Church law on the ministries of lector and acolyte, which mainly had been reserved to seminarians preparing for priesthood, saying he wanted to bring stability and public recognition to women already serving in the roles.

Lectors read from scripture, acolytes serve at Mass, and catechists teach the faith to children and adult converts.

The ministries of lector and acolyte existed before but were officially reserved to men. Francis instituted the ministry of the catechist last year.

At Sunday’s Mass the pope installed six women and two men as lectors and three women and five men as catechists. Francis gave a bible to each lector and a crucifix to each catechist.

The formalisation, including a conferral ceremony, will make it more difficult for conservative bishops to block women in their dioceses from taking on those roles.

The change will be particularly important as a recognition for women in places such as the Amazon, where some are the de facto religious leaders of remote communities hit by a severe shortage of priests.

The Vatican stressed that the roles are not a precursor to women one day being allowed to become priests. The Catholic Church teaches that only men can be priests because Jesus chose only men as his apostles.

Supporters of a female priesthood say Jesus was conforming to the customs of his times and that women played a greater role in the early Church than is commonly recognised.

Francis has appointed a number of women to senior jobs in Vatican departments previously held by men.


(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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Pope calls for world day of “prayer for peace” over Ukraine crisis



Pope Francis on Sunday called for an international day of “prayer for peace” on January 26 to stop the Ukraine crisis from worsening, saying the tensions were threatening the security of Europe and risking vast repercussions.

Francis announced the prayer day and made the appeal for dialogue to defuse the crisis during his weekly address and blessing to pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter’s Square.

Top U.S. and Russian diplomats failed on Friday to make a major breakthrough in talks to resolve the crisis over Ukraine, although they agreed to keep talking. On Sunday, Britain accused Russia of seeking to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine.

“I am following with concern the rising tensions that threaten to deliver a new blow to peace in Ukraine and put the security of Europe in doubt, with even more vast repercussions,” he said.

He appealed to “all people of good will” to pray next Wednesday so that all political initiatives “be for the service of human fraternity” rather than partisan interests. The Vatican gave no immediate details on how the pope would mark the day.

“Those who pursue their interests by damaging others are in contempt of his vocation as a man, because we were all created as brothers,” he said, without elaborating.

On Friday U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and warned of a “swift, severe” response if Russia invades Ukraine after massing troops near its border.

(Reporting by Philip PullellaEditing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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