Quebec shuts down schools, bars, gyms and more as COVID-19 case counts soar
Quebec moved to close schools, bars, gyms and movie theatres imminently as public health officials race to slow the spread of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said in the face of the variant, which appears to be doubling its spread every few days, the government had to take action to prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed.
"The situation is critical. The explosion of cases is overwhelming," said Dubé at a Monday afternoon news conference. "Our health system is already in crisis."
Hours before the announcement, Quebec reported a record number of cases for the past 24 hours, with 4,571 new cases, three more deaths and 21 more people in hospital.
Bars, gyms, movie theatres, concert venues and spas must close as of 5 p.m. Monday. Restaurants will have to reduce their capacity to 50 per cent and limit their hours from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Professional sports will have to be held without audiences.
Schools will close early for the holidays, shutting down as of Monday evening and returning on Jan. 10. Elementary schools will remain open only for vaccination campaigns and the distribution of rapid test kits.
Working from home is now being mandated for all non-essential workers, including civil servants.
Projections from the provincial government health-care research institute, INESSS, have shown as many as 700 Quebecers could be in hospital due to the virus by early January — a level not seen since last February — with about 160 of them in intensive care. The hospitalization number is currently 397, having been at 255 just over a week ago, while 82 are receiving care in intensive care units.
In an internal memo obtained by Radio-Canada, the CIUSSS du Nord-De-L'île-de-Montréal told employees elective and cardiac surgeries will be delayed in order to increase patient capacity at its four hospitals in Montreal's north end.
The health authority for the northern part of Montreal says it's worried about a rapid rise in cases sparked by Omicron. It will be re-activating COVID hot zones in hospitals and long-term care homes to admit patients who have the disease, and is encouraging employees to work from home and meet with patients virtually as much as possible.
Meanwhile, Laval's regional health authority reported two outbreaks over the weekend.
As with many jurisdictions, there is significant demand for rapid test kits over the holidays, with questionable supply.
Both the Jean-Coutu and Brunet chains chose to distribute the tests by appointment only, but both their websites crashed Monday morning. Others pharmacies chose to operate on a first-come, first-serve basis, leading to long lines long before the stores opened.
Pandemic backlogs put life at risk, says Winnipeg man waiting for kidney, heart transplants
Living organ donation last year was at its lowest level in a decade across the country, according to the latest numbers from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
They show the rate in 2020 was down 21 per cent from 2019.
It's been particularly hard for living kidney transplants, says University of Alberta transplant surgeon Dr. Max Levine. Kidney transplants are sometimes seen as elective because they're scheduled in advance, making them vulnerable to the chopping block when surgical backlogs ramp up.
In addition, both kidney candidates and their donors must undergo evaluations to determine if they're healthy enough for surgery. Those medical assessments can take months at the best of times, but the pandemic has meant longer waits.
"By delaying [a transplant] by months, you're increasing a percentage risk of mortality over that time," he said.
Blood tests, abdominal ultrasounds, psychiatry consultations and cardiovascular assessments can all be part of pre-transplant evaluations for kidney recipients. The ultrasound backlog has increased by 9,000 patients over a two-year period since October 2019, according to an estimate by the advocacy group Doctors Manitoba.
Matthew Laferriere is among those waiting. Each night, the 33-year-old Winnipeg native takes a plastic bag of fluid from one of the boxes stacked in his apartment and loads it into his home dialysis machine.
Laferriere was set for a kidney transplant at the end of 2020. He'd found a living donor, been cleared for the procedure and only needed the hospital to schedule the operation. Then the pandemic hit, delaying his operation due to COVID-19's impact on the health-care system.
"[I've gone] from being three or four months away from a kidney transplant to a year and a half later still in the same place I was before," Laferriere said. "Except feeling a lot worse."
Last January, his medical team told him his heart was no longer strong enough to tolerate the kidney transplant.
It's taken Laferriere a year to do the tests, diagnostics and appointments for his heart transplant. Because Manitoba does not perform heart transplants, he's also waiting to hear from Toronto's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre about whether he'll be added to the list of candidates for a new heart.
Laferriere says he tries not to dwell on his precarious position, and he checks in with his transplant co-ordinator every week to get updates. Her response is encouraging, Laferriere says.
"[She tells me], 'Keep being a squeaky wheel. Never, never feel like you're a burden to us — you're always our priority,'" he said. "It's just that they don't have the bandwidth anymore."
World roundup: COVID-19 developments concerning Britain, EU, Israel, Novavax
Even if Omicron generally causes fewer serious cases — a proposition not definitively proven in the real world — the variant could still overwhelm health systems around the world because of the sheer number of infections it produces due to its high transmissibility.
Omicron is spreading faster than the Delta variant and is causing infections in people already vaccinated or who have recovered from the COVID-19 disease, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.
"There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva. "And it is more likely people vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 could be infected or re-infected."
Patricia Marquis, England director for the Royal College of Nursing union, said Monday the situation over the next few weeks in Britain looked "very bleak," as growing absences from sickness and self-isolation hit hospitals struggling to clear a backlog of postponed procedures and treat normal winter illnesses alongside coronavirus cases.
"In many places, they're already under immense stress and pressure, and so they are starting to go off sick themselves with COVID, but also mental and physical exhaustion," she told the BBC. "So, staff are looking forward now thinking, oh my goodness, what is coming?"
Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.K. have surged by 50 per cent in a week. The government on Monday reported 91,700 new COVID-19 cases and 44 more deaths. With more than 147,000 deaths, Britain has Europe's highest COVID-19 death toll after Russia.
U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said Monday he could not rule out the possibility of new restrictions being announced this week.
In Israel on Monday, ministers agreed to ban travel to the United States, Canada and eight other countries amid the rapid, global spread of the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office announced the decision following a cabinet vote. A parliamentary committee was expected to give the measure final approval and, once authorized, the travel ban will take effect at midnight Wednesday morning.
Israel has moved more aggressively on booster shots than most developed nations but has seen a surge in new cases of the more infectious coronavirus variant in recent weeks. As of Sunday, Israel's health ministry has reported 175 cases of the new variant.
The European Union's drugs regulator gave the green light Monday to the two-dose shots made by U.S. biotech company Novavax, the fifth COVID-19 vaccine approved by the bloc.
Novavax says it currently is testing how its shots will hold up against the Omicron variant. Its previous biggest approval had been in Indonesia.
Novavax had hopes to be in on the earliest stages of the global inoculation campaign but the company was beset by production problems, as has been reported by CBC News. There's been hope, per Nature magazine, that Novavax's protein-based vaccine could help "rapidly address supply shortages that have plagued efforts to vaccinate lower-income countries," as it is less expensive and logistically complex to produce and move around the world than the mRNA vaccines in use.
The Maryland company has a rolling submission to Health Canada for authorization of its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine. As well, it was announced earlier in the pandemic that Novavax would produce its own COVID-19 vaccine at the National Research Council (NRC) site in Montreal, and in mid-October the NRC said in a statement that "the work with Novavax is proceeding as planned," with hopes for a 2022 start to production there.
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With files from Reuters, The Canadian Press, The Associated Press
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