Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario reports 3,784 new cases; Omicron now the dominant COVID strain in U.S.; Quebec to close bars, theatres, gyms – Toronto Star

The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Monday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

8:05 p.m.: It’s beginning to look a lot like chaos, everywhere you go, writes Star columnist Bruce Arthur. On Monday people lined up for rapid tests that ran out fast, or tried to get booster appointments that weren’t available until February next year. Some public health units ran out of Pfizer or contact tracing or both, and testing may be next. These are the early days of Omicron, and it probably feels like you’re on your own.

Which despite the best efforts of so many, you probably are. A lot of the defences people have counted on to see COVID clearly, or keep them safe from infection, are already crumbling. Omicron moves too fast.

“I think people need to be taking precautions for the coming storm,” said Dr. Lawrence Loh, the medical officer of health for Peel. “The opening of eligibility to 18-plus has basically overwhelmed capacity and supply; we really need people to reduce their contacts in the meantime while they await their booster, especially if they’re older.

“At the local level, we’re working as best and as quickly as we can to get it out. But the storm is coming and visibility is starting to diminish. Basically now we’re at the point where if you’re sick or exposed, just stay home. If you’re getting worse, go to the hospital. If you’re young with two doses, consider helping an older member of the community get to a spot first.”

You are at least partly on your own. Peel has long been the least resourced of the major health units, but it’s also the health unit with the lowest case rate of any of the five PHUs in the Greater Toronto Area. Across Ontario contact tracing is being limited to high-risk settings; if you’re exposed, just assume you have Omicron, and stay home. The province offers a whole three days of paid sick leave.

Read the full column from Bruce Arthur here.

7:50 p.m.: COVID-19 cases in British Columbia are back up to figures not seen since October, with an average of 850 a day.

The province reported a three-day total of 2,550 new cases on Monday and three more deaths.

There are 5,435 active infections, up from 2,949 a week ago.

New restrictions ranging from limits on audience capacities for large venues to the number of people allowed to attend indoor personal gatherings came into effect Monday.

Officials say the rules, which also prohibit New Year’s Eve parties, were being implemented over concerns that cases of people infected with the Omicron variant could overwhelm B.C. hospitals.

The health measures are scheduled to last until Jan. 31.

7:45 p.m.: Alberta is reporting a total of 1,045 cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

The province says there were 1,925 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend. It says 627 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Friday, 721 on Saturday and 577 on Sunday.

The active case count is at 5,652.

The 721 cases reported Saturday was the highest single-day case count since Oct. 20.

More than half of the Omicron cases reported to date were in the Calgary zone.

The Calgary zone has reported 613 Omicron cases, while Edmonton has had 367. The province says there are 324 people his hospital, including 69 in intensive care.

Since the pandemic began, a total of 3,292 people in Alberta have died from the disease.

7:15 p.m.: The Omicron variant accounted for 73% of all sequenced Covid-19 cases in the U.S., surging from around 3% last week, according to the latest federal estimates.

The highly mutated coronavirus strain has been detected across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a model that it updates weekly. The Delta variant, which had been the dominant form of the virus in the U.S. last week, has now receded to roughly 27% of sequenced cases.

The sizable increase in Omicron’s overall prevalence underscores fears that the rapidly spreading variant could produce a wave of infections that will strain the U.S. health-care system. While there is evidence that Omicron doesn’t produce more severe illness than Delta, a large surge in infection levels could still swamp hospitals with sick patients.

7 p.m.: Ontarians eager to book their booster shots on Monday morning were disappointed, as a surge in demand for a third COVID-19 vaccine forced local public health units to temporarily disable their booking portals, while others couldn’t offer appointments until February.

The scramble to secure an appointment was dubbed by many online as the “hunger games” — a repeat of the frustrations felt seven months earlier when Ontario first rolled out vaccines to people over 18.

At 8 a.m. Monday, the province opened its vaccination portal to those age 18 to 49 — around five million Ontarians — as it deals with a rapid increase of daily infections due to the Omicron variant. But many reported waiting over an hour, only to find out there are no appointments available in their area.

By 3 p.m., around 186,000 appointments had been booked through the provincial booking system. That doesn’t include thousands of appointments booked by public health units, pharmacies, primary care and hospitals.

Still, throughout the province, many were unable to secure a spot.

Read the full story here from Nadine Yousif and Isabel Teotonio

6 p.m.: If you plan on taking a rapid COVID test for peace of mind before heading to a holiday party or family dinner this week, experts urge you not to drop your guard if you see a negative result.

Rapid tests are reliable when they come back positive, experts say. A negative result, on the other hand, could mean several things — none of which guarantee you don’t have COVID, or won’t spread it.

“With a rapid test, a positive is a positive,” said Dr. Eric Arts, a virologist and immunology professor at Western University. “A negative is not a definitive negative. You may still be infected, regardless of what the rapid test shows you.”

He added: “A sense of security doesn’t exist.”

For one, a negative rapid test result could be a false negative. That happens more often with rapid tests than the PCR tests done at assessment centres, which are more accurate but still not infallible.

Read the full story here from Ben Cohen.

5:43 p.m.: Some of Toronto’s best-known hot spots are closing down temporarily as COVID-19 cases surge.

The Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace will be closed until January 3rd.

“In the interest of the health and safety of our staff, patrons and performers, the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace will be closed until Monday, Jan. 3, 2022,” the owners wrote on Instagram.

Comedy Bar will also be pausing performances at both their Bloor and Danforth locations “effective immediately,” according to a post on social media.

More to come.

5:41 p.m.: Queen Elizabeth II has decided not to spend Christmas at the royal Sandringham estate in eastern England amid concerns about the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

The palace said Monday that the 95-year-old queen will spend the holidays at Windsor Castle, west of London, where she has stayed for most of the pandemic.

For years, members of Britain’s extended royal family have spent the holidays at Sandringham, where crowds gather to watch them attend the local church on Christmas Day.

The queen has cut down on travel and work since spending a night in the hospital in October and being told to rest by her doctors. She has since undertaken light duties including virtual audiences with diplomats and weekly conversations with the prime minister.

This is the queen’s first Christmas since the death of her husband of 73 years, Prince Philip, in April at 99. The royal couple spent their final Christmas together at Windsor last year.

4:08 p.m.: Signs of strain on COVID-19 testing capacity emerged in Ontario and Quebec on Monday, prompting calls for limited resources to be prioritized for those who needed it most.

In Ontario, Ottawa Public Health advised the public of an “unprecedented surge” at testing sites that’s left the centres unable to keep up with demand. It asked residents to isolate if they have symptoms, receive a positive rapid test result or are exposed to a positive case.

The letter from the city’s associate medical officer of health said people with symptoms who can’t access a test should assume they have been infected with the Omicron variant and isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status. The isolation rules also apply to the symptomatic person’s household members.

In Quebec, testing centres were also seeing long waits for appointments and delays in results as the province continued to break records for its daily tally of cases.

Health Minister Christian Dubé urged only residents with COVID-19 symptoms get tested, noting more than 45,000 tests were processed in the last few days.

4 p.m.: More than one million Torontonians became eligible for COVID-19 booster vaccinations Monday, plunging many residents into another round of “Hunger Games” competition to snap up limited appointments

Toronto officials are urging third-dose seekers to have patience and persistence, saying some city staff are being redeployed and asked to work through vacation days, including Christmas, to increase clinic capacity.

“It is great to see the number of Torontonians who are once again and quickly stepping up to get their shots to protect themselves and others,” from the virus and its Omicron variant, public health chair Coun. Joe Cressy told the Star.

“There is a lot of angst because people want to be able to get their shots as quickly as possible,” he said. “From the Team Toronto network, we’re pulling out every stop, working every hour, cancelling holidays — from hospital staff to doctors to public health staff to redeployed city staff — to move faster.”

He urged residents to keep trying to book booster shots through the variety of available channels, and to keep an eye out for chances to move up the date as more appointments are added to the system.

Read the full story here from David Rider

3:50 p.m.: The need for the Raptors to be adaptable has never been more real or more urgent than it is now in times that seem to change daily, writes Doug Smith.

They get by day-to-day, changes to their daily schedule coming fast and furious. It’s too bad but the alternative is far less appealing given that Gary Trent Jr. has now joined Pascal Siakam and Dalano Banton in the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

“The one thing that’s constant is things will not be constant,” Fred VanVleet said on the weekend in one of the most prescient comments imaginable.

Since VanVleet said that, the Raptors have had a second game postponed, one practice cancelled outright and Monday’s full workout changed to a series of one-on-one sessions as they try to avoid a rash of COVID outbreaks raging around them.

Read the full story here from Doug Smith.

3:49 p.m.: It’s not that we really expect a straight answer, when we ask, as so many of us are now doing, “Why?”

Why now?

Why this Omicron variant, which seems to evade vaccine protection?

Why is everything as it is, instead of as it should be?

Read the latest from the Star’s Alex McKeen.

3:45 p.m.: Provincial data says tens of thousands of people have made appointments for COVID-19 booster shots in Saskatchewan in the face of a possible surge of infections caused by the Omicron variant.

Some 59 new COVID-19 cases are being reported today, but testing has found up to 65 cases of the Omicron variant — up from five on Friday.

Fifty-five of the Omicron cases identified through screening are probable and 10 have been confirmed.

3:20 p.m.: “Hamilton” and “Aladdin,” two of Broadway’s biggest musicals, are shuttering their doors during the busy Christmas week after finding breakthrough COVID-19 cases in their companies.

All matinee and evening performances of “Aladdin” from Tuesday through Friday were canceled. Performances are scheduled to resume Sunday. “Aladdin” had previously canceled its Dec. 19 performance.

“Hamilton” canceled shows on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday and performances are scheduled to resume Dec. 27. The production had previously canceled its Dec. 17 through Dec. 19 performances, as well as its Dec. 15 show due to the detection of positive results.

3 p.m.: Due to a limited supply of the Pfizer vaccine, Ontario will be giving out Moderna at many clinics for those 30 and older. A provincial spokesperson told the Star Monday that while it has an “ample” supply of mRNA vaccine doses, its supply of Pfizer is currently limited due to “historical uptake.” Ontario has requested four million doses of Pfizer from the federal government for January, which have yet to be approved.

Ontario continues to have an ample supply of pediatric doses of Pfizer for those aged 5-11, the spokesperson told the Star’s Olivia Bowden.

2:58 p.m.: Nova Scotia is reporting 485 new cases of COVID-19 today.

Although a new daily high, the case count is not a major increase from the 476 cases identified on Sunday.

Officials have identified 317 cases in the Halifax area, 75 cases in the western zone, 57 in the eastern zone and 36 in the northern zone.

2:48 p.m.: Appointments for COVID-19 boosters were snapped up quickly as Ontario expanded eligibility for the shots on Monday, leaving many residents frustrated at being unable to secure a third dose or having to book one weeks into the new year.

Bookings via the provincial portal opened to residents between the ages of 18 and 49 – about 10.5 million people – provided it had been at least three months since their second shot. Premier Doug Ford has touted the sped-up booster rollout as central to the fight against the highly contagious Omicron variant, which is driving a surge in cases.

The government said more than 125,000 third-dose appointments were booked through its online portal as of 10 a.m., but many residents said they had trouble finding shots in their regions in the coming days. Some health units said they quickly ran out of appointments and others said they were focusing on shots for more vulnerable groups.

2:38 p.m.: New Brunswick is reporting 118 new cases of COVID-19 and 107 recoveries.

Health officials say 42 people are currently in hospital as a result of the disease, including 17 in intensive care.

Officials say most of those who are hospitalized, as well as most of the new cases, continue to be people who are unvaccinated.

Since the Omicron variant was declared a variant of concern on Nov. 26, the province says 568 samples, including all travel-related cases, have been sequenced with 31 cases confirmed to be the Omicron variant.

2:28 p.m.: Manitoba continues to see surging COVID-19 infections with 807 cases and six more deaths over the last three days.

The government says in a news release that of those new infections, 333 were identified on Sunday — the highest single-day number since June.

It says nine more cases of the Omicron variant have also been identified for a total of 17.

There are 137 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 27 of whom are in intensive-care units.

1:35 p.m.: Amid rapidly growing COVID-19 cases, Quebec is bringing back tough new restrictions in an effort to stop the spread.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé called the situation “critical” as he announced today that bars, theatres and entertainment venues will close as of 5 p.m. today, while restaurants will be allowed to remain open at reduced capacity between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Elementary schools and high schools will close after today and in-person learning will resume Jan. 10, but schools will remain accessible until the holiday break for vaccinations or distributing rapid tests to students.

Spectators will not be permitted to attend professional or amateur sporting events, and gyms and spas will also shutter.

Remote work, which before was recommended by authorities, will now be mandatory.

Quebec reported 4,571 COVID-19 cases today, a new single day record since the beginning of the pandemic.

10:45 a.m.: Israel has tightened travel restrictions for 10 countries as part of measures to contain the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The United States, Canada, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Turkey and Switzerland will be considered “red countries” as of Wednesday, meaning that Israelis are only allowed to travel there with special permission.

The measures recommended by the Health Ministry and confirmed by the cabinet are set to come into force at midnight on Tuesday (2200 GMT), the government announced on Monday.

More than 50 countries — mainly in Africa — are on the red list.

Israel already has a general entry ban in place for foreigners.

On Monday, the Health Ministry reported more than 1,000 new infections in a day for the first time in about two months.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday that a fifth wave of infections had begun.

10:19 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 3,784 cases of COVID-19 on Monday.

Individuals who are not fully vaccinated represent 22.9 per cent of Ontario’s total population and amount to 865 of Ontario’s 3,784 new reported cases. Additionally, 138 cases are in individuals with an unknown vaccination status.

In the province, 25,422,938 vaccine doses have been administered — 90.5 per cent of Ontarians aged 12+ have one dose and 87.8 per cent have two doses, as well 284 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, and 164 people are in ICU due to COVID-19.

8:26 a.m. The European Union’s drugs regulator gave the green light Monday to a fifth COVID-19 vaccine for use in the 27-nation bloc, granting conditional marketing authorization to the two-dose vaccine made by U.S. biotech company Novavax.

The European Medicines Agency decision to grant conditional marketing authorization for the vaccine for people aged 18 and over, which must be confirmed by the EU’s executive commission, comes as many European nations are battling surges in infections and amid concerns about the spread of the new omicron variant.

Novavax says it currently is testing how its shots will hold up against the omicron variant, and like other manufacturers has begun formulating an updated version to better match that variant in case in case it’s eventually needed.

8 a.m. Moderna said Monday that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine should offer protection against the rapidly spreading omicron variant.

Moderna said lab tests showed the half-dose booster shot increased by 37 times the level of so-called neutralizing antibodies able to fight omicron.

And a full-dose booster was even stronger, triggering an 83-fold jump in antibody levels, although with an increase in the usual side effects, the company said. While half-dose shots are being used for most Moderna boosters, a full-dose third shot has been recommended for people with weakened immune systems.

Moderna announced the preliminary laboratory data in a press release and it hasn’t yet undergone scientific review. But testing by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, announced last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, found a similar jump.

Read more from The Associated Press.

7:07 a.m. Britain’s main nurses’ union warned Monday that exhaustion and surging coronavirus cases among medical staff are pushing them to breaking point, adding to pressure on the government for new restrictions to bring down record-high infection numbers driven by the Omicron variant.

Patricia Marquis, England director for the Royal College of Nursing union, said the situation over the next few weeks 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 sicknesses 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?’”

Having repeatedly promised that there will be no repeat of last year’s lockdown-marred Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces an agonizing choice: wreck the holiday plans of millions or face a tidal wave of cases and disruption.

6:10 a.m. As figure skaters twirl around a busy Nathan Phillips Square rink outside his city hall office window, Mayor John Tory is troubled about the year ahead.

Another pandemic budget the city can’t afford, rising cases of a fast-moving variant of COVID-19 that threatens another holiday season together and uncertainty about Toronto — which he often refers to as the “economic engine” of the country — revving back to life in 2022 as hoped.

If the mayor had a wish list this holiday season, it would include this: committed funding from the provincial and federal governments for the cost of shelter and to cover the lack of TTC fares, the arrival of previously promised money to fight gun violence and agreement on council for a path forward on housing options across the city.

“I’m never satisfied because there’s always things to be done,” Tory said in a wide-ranging year-end interview with the Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro.

6 a.m. (updated) Ontarians 18 and older can now book a COVID-19 vaccine booster through the provincial portal, as long as it has been at least three months since they had their second shot.

But many social media users who logged in to reserve a spot this morning reported facing a virtual lineup of more than an hour.

Others said the earliest appointments they could find were more than a month away, while others reported no available appointments in their region.

The province announced Wednesday that it was expanding eligibility in an effort to bolster defences against the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Pharmacies were able to start offering the boosters to younger adults on Friday, but now Ontarians can make appointments through the province’s or a local public health unit’s website.

Indoor social gatherings are limited to a maximum of 10 people, while outdoor gatherings can only have 25.

5:45 a.m. Cancelling flights, paring down gatherings and wrangling rapid tests and booster shots have become the new hallmarks of the 2021 holiday season as the highly contagious Omicron variant has led to an explosion of COVID-19 cases in Ontario. Even some NHL teams will be staying at home.

And, with Christmas less than a week away, holiday plans are being quickly re-evaluated, or tossed out completely, according to a new study by Forum Research provided exclusively to the Star.

Fifty-one per cent of Ontario residents surveyed will be celebrating only with their immediate household, according to the poll, published Monday.

Read more from the Star’s Olivia Bowden.

5:35 a.m. The COVID-19 Omicron variant is “just raging around the world,” the White House’s top medical adviser said Sunday as President Joe Biden prepares to issue “a stark warning of what the winter will look like” for unvaccinated Americans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “the real problem” for the U.S. hospital system is that “we have so many people in this country who are eligible to be vaccinated who have not yet been vaccinated.”

The prospect of a winter chilled by a wave of coronavirus infections is a severe reversal from the optimism projected by Biden some 10 months ago, when he suggested at a CNN town hall that the country would essentially be back to normal by this Christmas. Biden has been careful not to overpromise, yet confidence in the country has been battered by an unrelenting wave of COVID-19 mutations and variations that have left many Americans emotionally exhausted, dispirited and worried about infections.

5:30 a.m. Mere weeks after raising the curtain to in-person audiences following a once-in-a-generation shutdown, many theatres are finding themselves back where they were in March 2020. Amid rising COVID-19 case counts, the threat of the Omicron variant and new capacity limits introduced by the province, production companies across Ontario are once again being forced to cancel or postpone upcoming productions.

On Sunday, Mirvish Productions announced that it has cancelled its highly-anticipated production of “Leopoldstadt.” Tom Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning play was scheduled to make its North American premiere at the Princess of Wales Theatre on Jan. 22 for a seven-week engagement.

“The sudden arrival of the Omicron variant has made it impossible for me to fulfil my dream of presenting ‘Leopoldstadt’, a play that greatly moved me when I saw it in January 2020 at its first preview performance,” said show presenter David Mirvish in a statement issued Sunday.

Read more from the Star’s Joshua Chong.

5:20 a.m. Quebec is tightening public health measures again today as COVID-19 cases spike across the province.

Premier François Legault announced tougher measures last week to combat the Omicron variant as the province reported a jump in hospitalizations, with record-breaking cases for the province’s daily tally over the weekend.

The government backtracked on increasing the maximum of indoor gatherings to 20, maintaining the maximum at 10 people instead.

Bars, restaurants, retail stores, places of worship and entertainment activities are to operate at half capacity as of today.

The Quebec government is also reintroducing a ban on karaoke and dancing, and all sports tournaments and competitions are suspended until further notice.

5:15 a.m. New COVID-19 restrictions ranging from audience capacities on large venues to the number of people able to attend indoor gatherings are in effect today.

The health measures are scheduled to last until Jan. 31.

Health officials say the restrictions, which also include the cancellation of all New Year’s Eve parties, are being implemented over fears of the Omicron variant overwhelming B.C. hospitals.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said the Omicron variant is adding new and more complex challenges to managing the pandemic.

B.C. reported 302 cases of the Omicron variant on Friday, up from 135 on Thursday.

5:05 a.m. Canada’s battle to contain the Omicron variant continues on multiple fronts today, with three provinces reintroducing public health restrictions and a fourth expanding eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

British Columbia and Quebec are both capping capacity at bars and restaurants at 50 per cent as of today, while Newfoundland and Labrador has limited bars to 50 per cent and restaurants to 75 per cent with physical distancing in effect.

B.C. is also limiting indoor social gatherings to a maximum of 10 people.

Ontario, meanwhile, is expanding COVID-19 vaccine booster eligibility to all adults, provided it’s been at least three months since they received their second dose.

5 a.m. Israeli ministers on Monday 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.

The rare move to red-list the U.S. comes amid rising coronavirus infections in Israel and marks a change to pandemic practices between the two nations with close diplomatic relations. The U.S. will join a growing list of European countries and other destinations to which Israelis are barred from travelling, and from which returning travellers must remain in quarantine.

A parliamentary committee is expected to give the measure final approval. Once authorized, the travel ban will take effect at midnight Wednesday morning.