A look at the latest COVID-19 news in Canada:
— The latest evidence does not show the Omicron variant is contagious for less time than previous versions of the virus that causes COVID-19, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says. But Tam told the House of Commons health committee that the sheer number infections from Omicron is stressing workforces and is a reason to adjust our risk tolerance for ending isolation periods early. "We do recognize that because so many people are infected with Omicron, at the moment, maintaining business continuity and continuity of critical services is extremely challenging," she said. Tam said reducing the isolation period carries "a certain amount of risk" and makes other protective layers, like masks, and testing even more important.
— Educators returned to Ontario classrooms this week with little information about COVID-19 cases in schools and some early signs of related staff shortages taking shape in regions that weren't affected by heavy snow. Classes resumed in-person in the province's north and southwest after a two-week remote learning period prompted by rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Many schools in the Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa areas were delayed or only partially open on Monday and Tuesday as municipalities cleaned up after the storm. In the Sudbury, Ont., area, where classes resumed on Monday, a teachers union representative said the biggest challenge so far has arisen from instructors being forced to isolate at home after completing a provincial screening tool, because either they or members of their households had symptoms.
— Several Ontario child-care centres are raising concerns about limited supplies of N95 masks provided by the government, saying they have no indication on when they will receive more. The province announced last week that it was sending the high-quality masks to all schools and childcare centres as Ontario fights a wave of the highly infectious Omicron variant. A government spokeswoman said that an "ongoing and steady supply" of N95s will be provided to daycares. Lori Prospero, CEO of RisingOaks Early Learning, said she's "really thankful" for the N95s the province recently provided but noted that the masks shipped so far are only enough to last staff about a week or two.
— Ontario is set to make an announcement later this week about reducing COVID-19 restrictions, Premier Doug Ford says, as some health-sector experts pointed to early signs of an ebbing Omicron wave. Ford told Ottawa radio station CFRA that he hates putting the public health measures in place and that there will soon be some positive news on that front. "There’s no one that dislikes these lockdowns more than I do. I actually despise them," the premier said in the interview, adding that he follows the advice of the chief medical officer of health. "We’ll have some positive news. I believe we’re going to make some announcements later this week about going back to other levels of restrictions."
— A group representing the fitness industry is hailing the reopening of gyms and other fitness facilities in British Columbia as the province's top doctor described her decision as a "cautious step" in lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Dr. Bonnie Henry said a proof-of-vaccination card will still be required to use gyms starting Thursday, and the facilities will need to operate under capacity limits and provide seven metres square for every person who is exercising. "Kudos to the fitness and gym communities who've really done a great job of recognizing and supporting us when this was a challenging time. And I know it's been a very challenging time for them," Henry said.
— Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says COVID-19 hospitalization rates are rising to levels not seen in the province since mid-October when the health-care system was grappling with the fourth wave. Dr. Deena Hinshaw says the surging number of cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant are starting to be reflected in hospital admissions. "It is important to recognize that any COVID-positive admission has an impact on our acute-care capacity," Hinshaw said. "The bottom line is that our acute-care system remains under serious pressure and COVID-19 continues to pose a risk of severe outcomes to many Albertans." She said hospitalizations surpassed 1,000 on Sunday for the first time since Oct. 14. On Tuesday, there were 1,089 people in hospital with the infection, including 104 in intensive care.
— Canada's two biggest airlines are cutting thousands of flights as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge. WestJet Airlines Inc. says it will cancel 20 per cent of its February flights, less than three weeks after announcing flight reductions of 15 per cent for January. The move marks a response to "government barriers" amid the Omicron variant, which has also affected staffing levels, the Calgary-based airline says. While Air Canada has not announced major flight consolidations, it has cancelled 15 per cent of its flights in March and 11 per cent in February — 6,805 flights in total — within the last two weeks alone, according to figures from airline data company Cirium.
— Grocery stores are struggling with rising labour and product shortages that experts warn could threaten Canada's food security. Gary Sands, senior vice-president of public policy with the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, says employee absenteeism due to COVID-19 protocols has hit about 30 per cent across Canada, and rising. Without access to rapid testing in many provinces, he says workers are repeatedly forced to isolate for a week or more after an exposure to COVID-19. Sands says if the situation worsens, some grocery stores won't be able to open — threatening food security in rural and remote areas of the country that rely on a sole independent grocer.
— The latest surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations is showing signs of subsiding, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said, shortly before officials outlined a contingency plan to keep overwhelmed hospitals operating. That plan could see hospitals place less effort into trying to keep COVID-19 infections out of their facilities and instead adopt a "harm-reduction approach" to the spread of the virus, Marie-Eve Bouthillier, chair of the province's COVID-19 ethics committee, told reporters at a technical briefing. If the plan is fully implemented, then workers who have been exposed to or infected with the virus would continue working rather than isolating. As well, family members of patients would be asked to provide basic care for their relatives so health-care workers could focus on clinical tasks. Quebec hospitals would also reduce the minimum level of care offered, Bouthillier said. Hospitals, she added, would "care for more people at a lower level, rather than give fewer people an optimal level of care, so we can ensure that no one finds themselves without care."
— Staff at shelters and homeless agencies are struggling to support people living on the streets as the highly transmissible Omicron COVID-19 variant sweeps through communities. Deirdre Freiheit, president and CEO of Shepherds of Good Hope in Ottawa, says her organization is grappling with staff shortages, the shelters and isolation centre being at full capacity, and people staying in shelters longer due to a lack of affordable housing.Freiheit says her team has had to put people in staff positions they wouldn't normally do, like turning managers and security guards into front-line workers, and administrative staff into recruiting specialists.
— The Saskatchewan Health Authority says health-care services may be interrupted in the weeks ahead when a tide of COVID-19 hospitalizations and absences among workers is expected to hit. Derek Miller, the authority's interim chief operating officer, says health teams are putting together plans for service slowdowns which could affect surgeries. In the first week of January, there were 1,000 health-care employees off the job because they were either sick with COVID-19 or had to take time off to care for a child, Miller says. Since then absenteeism has increased and about 17 per cent of the health authority's workforce is away.
— Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat has been placed in the NHL's COVID-19 protocol. The 26-year-old centre was added to the list as the Canucks prepared to face the Predators in Nashville Tuesday night. He's the latest Canucks player to be added to the COVID protocol, coming after backup goalie Jaroslav Halak was added Saturday and right-winger Conor Garland on Sunday.
— Montreal Canadiens forwards Cole Caufield and Joel Armia have been placed in the NHL's COVID-19 protocol ahead of Tuesday's game in Dallas against the Stars. The last-place Canadiens have endured a miserable season to date, including a coronavirus outbreak that forced 24 players and two assistant coaches into isolation at its height. Caufield, 21, who won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey before joining Montreal ahead of its improbable run to the Stanley Cup final last spring, has just one goal and seven assists in a 2021-22 season which has included a demotion to the minors. Armia, meanwhile, was also placed in COVID-19 protocol back in June, which forced him to miss Game 1 of the title series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
— Yukon's acting chief medical officer of health says school-based surveillance and management of COVID-19 is the next "logical step" to keep pace with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant. Dr. Catherine Elliott said the government will no longer be issuing school exposure notifications for the virus during a news conference Tuesday, the same day new restrictions on gatherings took effect. Elliott says while most schools have transitioned back to in-person learning, some are pivoting to remote learning based on low staffing levels due to the Omicron variant.
— Nunavut's premier says the territory has recorded its first COVID-19 death during the Omicron wave. P.J. Akeeagok is sharing his condolences with the person's family and community. It's the fifth COVID-19 death in Nunavut since the start of the pandemic almost two years ago.
— New Brunswick's health minister has issued a call for volunteers to help with the province's pandemic response effort. Dorothy Shephard says the Omicron variant is causing increased hospitalizations and staff shortages. In a statement, she says the government needs people for paid and unpaid work in both clinical and non-clinical roles.
— Prince Edward Island is imposing strict, new health restrictions amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. As of midnight, personal gatherings will be limited to a single household plus two support people, and funeral and wedding ceremonies will be restricted to a maximum of 10 people. Gyms and recreation facilities will be closed and in-room dining at restaurants won't be permitted. The new restrictions, including continued online learning for schools, will be in place until at least Jan. 31.
— Ten people in Newfoundland and Labrador have died from COVID-19 in the past three weeks. Public health officials reported two more deaths attributed to the disease, marking the province's 27th and 28th COVID-19-related deaths. One-third of the province's COVID-19 deaths have occurred since Dec. 30, when the total stood at 18.
— Nova Scotia is reporting 13 new hospital admissions and one more death today as a result of COVID-19. Health officials say a woman in her 80s has died in the province's eastern zone — the fifth death reported in the last two days. A total of 73 people are in hospital receiving care in a designated COVID-19 unit, including 15 who are in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.
The Canadian Press