In the battle of the variants, omicron is poised to win.
While delta has long dominated the bulk of Canada’s coronavirus cases, the latest variant of concern is set to overtake other variants both here and abroad as it spreads through more than 60 countries around the world.
Early evidence suggests omicron is more adept at infecting people who’ve already had COVID-19 or multiple doses of leading vaccines, and the heavily mutated variant also has an uncanny knack for transmitting between people in the same home.
In other words, it’s likely incredibly contagious, and capable of leaving delta in its dust.
While there are hopeful signals that vaccination still protects against serious disease, with boosters offering a stronger shield against any level of omicron infection, multiple medical experts who spoke to CBC News warn it’s time to buckle down for a tough stretch ahead — since this variant will find its way to the vulnerable, even if most Canadians who get infected are largely unscathed.
“I don’t think we’ve seen anything like omicron in this pandemic yet,” said Sarah Otto, an expert in modelling and evolutionary biology with the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “It’s capable of taking over in a matter of a few weeks.”
U.K. bracing for ‘tidal wave’ of cases
In the U.K., where omicron is on track to take over as case counts keep rising, top medical officials said Sunday that data on severity of these infections isn’t yet clear, but hospitalizations tied to omicron are already happening.
A day later, the country reported its first omicron-linked death, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of a “tidal wave” of cases.
WATCH | U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson notes the ‘sheer pace’ of omicron spread:
The latest federal modelling data in Canada suggests countrywide coronavirus cases here could quadruple to 12,000 a day in January if “omicron successfully establishes.”
And the most up-to-date figures provided by Ontario’s science table show omicron has a reproduction number roughly three times that of delta — and a doubling time for cases of only three days — with the variant already making up an estimated 31 per cent of that province’s coronavirus cases as of Monday.
Just one day prior, omicron made up an estimated 20 per cent of reported cases.
WATCH | When could omicron become dominant in Canada?
In South Africa, the country which alerted the world to omicron’s existence, it only took two weeks for omicron to out-compete delta as the dominant variant in genomically sequenced samples, said Jody Boffa, a Canadian epidemiologist currently working as a research fellow at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town.
It’s not yet clear what Canada’s exact experience will be, given the differences in vaccination rollouts, timelines, and vaccines used in different countries and our overall two-dose vaccination rate — which is far higher than many countries’ around the world at more than three-quarters of the population, with boosters now rolling out as well.
Vaccination differences aside, even a less virulent variant transmitting this quickly “would result in many more absolute hospitalizations and deaths in a short span of time,” Boffa said in an email exchange with CBC News.
A fresh update today on the <a href=”https://twitter.com/COVIDSciOntario?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@COVIDSciOntario</a> dashboard puts omicron at close to a third of Ontario’s <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> cases. It was at 20% just yesterday. <a href=”https://t.co/YjUGTwatct”>pic.twitter.com/YjUGTwatct</a>
Questions remain over disease severity
The concern over omicron’s expected dominance has less to do with its impact on individuals — given how many Canadians are still somewhat protected by one, two or even three vaccine doses — and more on what happens when it finds its way to those at higher risk of serious infections, including anyone unvaccinated, older or immunocompromised.
The usual COVID-19 numbers game, several epidemiologists agreed, means a fast-spreading, more-contagious variant could again put pressure on hospital systems.
“If it is not severe in everybody, we are lucky. But we don’t know if that’s true,” said Otto. “If it’s even half as severe among the unvaccinated, that’s still too severe. So skyrocketing among unvaccinated cases means more exposed hospitals overrun in mid-January.”
Early proclamations of mild disease have given way to a collective pause, as medical experts warn that more time and data are needed to understand the true picture of how omicron infections progress.
WATCH | Data on severity of omicron variant still preliminary, but Tam urges caution:
South Africa hasn’t yet seen a surge in severe illness or deaths roughly a month into its omicron experience, though it’s important to note the country has a relatively younger, lower-risk population.
One preprint case study published online on Friday, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at one cluster of omicron infections among a group of young-adult Germans staying in the country.
The seven individuals each had three doses of COVID-19 vaccines, yet developed mild symptoms — including a runny nose, sore throat, shortness of breath, and for all of them, a dry cough — echoing broader evidence that this variant can evade some level of vaccine-based immunity.
A line in the preprint case held promising news: “This suggests that full vaccination followed by a booster dose still provides good protection against severe COVID-19.”
But will the potential for milder infection hold true as this variant spreads more to older adults, particularly those who aren’t yet vaccinated or have pre-existing health issues?
“I really want to emphasize [that] we do not know it’s milder for everybody,” said Otto.
Protect community through ‘individual actions’
Given the uncertainty over omicron’s severity, and the mounting evidence that it can spread through both unvaccinated and vaccinated populations, it may be time to brace for the worst, even as the world hopes for the best.
One Canadian modelling expert — speaking on background due to their role with a federal advisory body — noted early data from Ontario shows the province was already in a period of exponential growth, even without omicron in the mix.
“Once it becomes more established here, we’re going to very quickly have an overwhelmed health-care system,” they said in an email to CBC News. “Vaccinations are coming online too slowly to markedly change that trajectory, and beyond hoping for boosters to save us, we’re not doing anything.”
While most of the serious COVID-19 infections would likely be among the unvaccinated, as seen throughout the pandemic, enough breakthrough cases tied to a more contagious variant could mean a rising number of serious infections among vaccinated Canadians as well — if the virus has the opportunity to spread.
As millions of families are set to gather for the holidays, and as most Canadians continue going about their daily lives with few public health restrictions to dissuade them, Otto stressed there’s a renewed need to maintain basic precautions, even if you’re vaccinated.
“We protect our community by all of our individual actions,” she said.
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are travelling abroad despite Omicron – CBC News
Despite growing concerns across the globe last fall over the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, Sandy Long and her husband departed on Nov. 28 for a 10-day vacation in Mexico.
Long said they felt comfortable travelling, because they planned to take strict safety precautions. Plus, the couple hadn’t gone abroad for two years due to the pandemic and were yearning to get away.
“Life is short,” said Long, 58, of Richmond, B.C. “We needed to feel some warmth [and] we really missed Mexico.”
It appears many Canadians have a similar attitude toward travel these days despite Omicron’s fast and furious spread, which prompted Canada to repost its advisory against non-essential international travel last month.
Statistics Canada tallied 742,417 Canadian air-passenger arrivals returning home from abroad in December.
When adjusted to account for recent changes in tracking air travel, that total is almost six times the number of arrivals for the same month in 2020, and more than half the total for pre-pandemic December 2019.
The increase in international travel is likely to continue: there were 216,752 Canadian air-passenger arrivals to Canada during the week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, according to the latest data posted by the Canada Border Services Agency.
Travel agency owner Lesley Keyter said that, since October, the number of clients booking trips has jumped by between 30 and 40 per cent compared to the same time last year.
She said popular destinations for her clients, most of whom are aged 50 or older, include Europe, Mexico and Costa Rica. When Omicron cases started to surge in December, Keyter said some clients cancelled their trip, but most kept their travel plans.
“People are saying, “Listen, we only have a limited time on this planet.… We’ve put off travel for two years now, I don’t want to put it off anymore,” said Keyter, owner of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary.
She said travellers also feel confident with the added protection of their COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot. Because Omicron is so transmissible and more able to evade vaccines, even vaccinated people may get infected, however, they’re less likely to wind up in the hospital.
Risk of testing positive abroad
But even if infected travellers only experience mild symptoms, they’ll still face hurdles returning home.
To enter Canada, air passengers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure. If a traveller tests positive, they must wait at least 11 days before boarding a flight home.
Brennan Watson, 26, of Milverton, Ont., tested positive on Dec. 28 while travelling in Ireland.
He was set to fly home the following day, but instead had to find a place to self-isolate in Belfast. Due to Canada’s rules at the time — which have now changed — Watson had to wait 15 days before he could fly home.
“It was very stressful in the beginning,” he said. “It was a bit of a panic just to think that I’m stuck here.”
Brennan said the delay cost him: he missed 11 days of work as an electrician and spent $2,000 in added expenses, including another plane ticket home.
“There’s nothing you can really do about it,” he said. “It’s just something I didn’t even think would happen.”
WATCH | Canada once again advises against travel abroad:
Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said travellers can avoid such unexpected costs by purchasing trip-interruption insurance. He said most of his clients now opt for the coverage that will reimburse travellers for some or all of their costs if they test positive and must extend their trip.
“Trip interruption — which used to be a very rarely [purchased product] — is now being added to all the emergency medical plans, because clients worry terribly about testing positive,” said Firestone with Travel Secure.
“That’s the new world we live in right now with the pandemic.”
Another hurdle travellers may face is unexpected flight cancellations.
This month, Air Canada Vacations announced it will suspend some flights to sun destinations between Jan. 24 and April 30. After cutting 15 per cent of its January flights, WestJet announced on Tuesday it will cancel 20 per cent of its February flights.
Long said she and her husband enjoyed their trip to Mexico so much, they had planned to return again in the upcoming weeks. However, the couple recently nixed their plans due to concerns over flight cancellations.
“It’s the uncertainty right now,” said Long. “I don’t want to get down there and then be stranded.”
However, she’s still optimistic about a trip the couple has booked in May to Spain.
Despite testing positive while travelling, Brennan hopes to return to Ireland this summer — even if the pandemic hasn’t waned by then.
“I spent a year and a half of my life not seeing family, not seeing friends,” he said. “I’m not going to stop living my life.”
Immigration: Canada border tragedy a sign of what's ahead – CTV News
PEMBINA, N.D. —
The discovery of four people who perished in the cold trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border could put a new twist on the immigration debate in the United States.
The group, which included an infant and a teen, were found Wednesday near Emerson, Man., just metres from the Canadian side.
U.S. officials allege they were part of a larger group of Indian migrants trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada.
Border expert Kathryn Bryk Friedman, a University at Buffalo law professor, calls it a troubling sign that the country’s immigration challenges are getting worse.
Friedman says the discovery is likely a “warning shot” that more people are willing to put their lives on the line to enter the U.S., even on foot in the dead of winter.
Florida resident Steve Shand is to appear in court Monday in Minneapolis to face human smuggling charges.
“I do think it’s a warning shot,” said Friedman, who remarked about the enduring appeal life in the U.S. seems to hold for people all around the world.
Indeed, the crush of South American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has become a defining characteristic of American politics in recent years, most notably during the tenure of former president Donald Trump.
Nor is Canada a stranger to the problem: thousands of asylum seekers crossed the border in Quebec each year while Trump was in office, though the numbers have dropped precipitously since then.
But an organized effort to sneak groups of people into the U.S. from Canada is a new one on Friedman.
“It just demonstrates the allure still — maybe the enduring allure — of trying to get to the United States. It’s really kind of fascinating,” she said.
But a single incident isn’t likely to prompt either country to seriously rethink the way they manage and defend their shared frontier, she added.
“This sounds terrible, but I think it’s going to take more than four people dying at the border to really galvanize action on the part of Canada and the United States.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2022.
Omicron's potential peak has experts cautiously optimistic – CTV News
Canada’s top doctor has said the latest wave of COVID-19 driven by the Omicron variant may have reached its peak.
But while the modelling appears encouraging, experts say the news should be interpreted with cautious optimism.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters on Friday that there are “early indications that infections may have peaked at the national level” based on daily case counts, test positivity, the reproduction number and wastewater data.
“I hope we’re at or nearing the peak, but the problem that I have is where we’ve got some uncertainty in the counting now since we don’t do as much PCR testing as we once did,” Dr. Ronald St. John, former director-general of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, told CTV News Channel on Saturday.
Due to the shortages in PCR testing capacity, many people who develop COVID-19, particularly if they’re not in a high-risk group and have mild or no symptoms, have been unable to get PCR tests.
“We can’t count people who are asymptomatic, so we have to look at other datasets (like) wastewater concentration, things like that, to try to get an understanding of where we are.” St. John said.
Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an infectious disease expert at the University of Manitoba, says the news shows “some optimism that things will slowly get back to normal, what they were like prior to Omicron.”
However, Tam said that hospitalizations and ICU admissions are still climbing across Canada and health systems remain under “intense strain.” Kindrachuk says it’s unclear how quickly we might start seeing hospitalizations and ICU admissions start to decrease.
“I think we’ve learned over and over again from the pandemic is that you know, cases rise and then hospitalizations lag behind … and that trend also stays in place when cases start to recede,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Saturday.
“You may be able to slow down that hospitalization rate over time, but you are still going to have pressure on a health-care system that that has been pushed to its limits.”
Dr. Christine Palmay, a Toronto-based family physician, says the hospitalization and ICU data also leave out a lot of patients dealing with debilitating symptoms. She and her colleagues have seen numerous patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are struggling with the virus at home.
“They’re not captured by ICU stats. They’re not necessarily accessing ER, but they’re not functioning,” she said.
PROVINCES BEGIN EASING RESTRICTIONS
Several provinces have also reported that Omicron may be peaking or close to peaking. In Ontario, Health Minister Christine Elliott said cases are expected to peak this month, followed by a peak in hospitalizations and ICU admissions. Quebec also reported that hospitalizations declined for the third straight day on Saturday.
Wastewater data in B.C. and Alberta have also shown signs that the virus may have peaked. However, health officials in Manitoba and Saskatchewan say it’s too early to tell.
When COVID-19 cases began to reach unprecedented highs throughout Canada last month, provinces and territories imposed numerous health measures affecting restaurants, movie theatres, gyms, in-person schooling and more. Now, some provincial and territorial governments have plans to life some of these restrictions.
Kindrachuk says these restrictions, on top of the rollout of booster shots, appear to have helped plateau cases. However, as these restrictions start to ease, he notes that cases have the potential to rise again.
“When you start to remove those safety breaks, you have the potential that things could start to build back in the opposite direction. So, we have to do it very methodically and certainly with a lot of oversight,” he said.
St. John says he’s also worried about health measures being lifted too quickly.
“We have to wait and stick to our public health measures as long as possible until we can be absolutely sure that we’re coming out of the woods, and I’m not sure that we are yet,” he said.
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