Considering a big holiday gathering? You may want to think again, says Hamilton's top doc

Food and medicine deliveries for the city's most vulnerable people. Cancelling gatherings at schools and daycares. Reconsidering family holiday plans. These are just some of the things the city's medical officer of health recommends now that the omicron variant is here.

Omicron variant 'is something very different than what we've seen before,' says Dr. Elizabeth Richardson

A mask.
Hamilton's medical officer of health says omicron has increased the need for people to wear masks - and properly. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Food and medicine deliveries for the city's most vulnerable people. Cancelling gatherings at schools and daycare centres. Reconsidering family holiday plans.

These are just some of the things Hamilton's medical officer of health recommends now that the omicron variant is here. 

Tighter public health measures — like capacity restrictions at events and fitness centres and masking in all indoor spaces — will likely be announced soon too, with Dr. Elizabeth Richardson saying it's "top of mind for us and is something we're actively looking at."

"The projections from the Ontario Science Table do signal that there is something very different than what we've seen before, particularly when it relates to transmissibility," Richardson said a Tuesday media briefing.

"We're now hearing the spread, even among fully vaccinated individuals, is infecting four to eight times more individuals than the delta variant did. And even if it is less severe, this could put significant strain on our health-care system."

"Transmission is exponential right now and it's a very steep slope."

WATCH: How can Canada fight omicron?

COVID-19: How can Canada fight omicron?

2 years ago
Duration 1:54
Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, discusses the steps needed to fight the expected wave of omicron and whether more lockdowns could be looming.

Richardson said unlike past variants and waves, rather than watching COVID-19 hit other cities and countries first before making decisions, public health is learning alongside everyone else.

Omicron is moving faster than expected, she said.

"We are expecting to see over the coming days what this omicron variant does bring for us in terms of the severity of disease."

Richardson said she also worries the surge in cases will overwhelm local public health's ability to contact trace and accurately capture the sheer volume of new cases.

This comes as Ontario tightened rules at long-term care and retirement homes and is boosting its capacity to vaccinate people.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said "the game is changing" because of omicron. The current approach, he said, is tailored to the delta variant.

3 outbreaks linked to potential omicron case

Hamilton's seven-day average for new cases is 53. At the height of the third wave, it was 94.

As of Tuesday morning, there are 411 active cases.

Richardson said the virus is infecting people under 60 the most.

There are 26 people in hospital with COVID-19 and fewer than five are in the intensive care unit.

There are 20 active outbreaks.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson is Hamilton's medical officer of health. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Richardson said the outbreak at the West End Pub (three confirmed cases), Homewood Suites Hamilton (six cases) and St. Patrick Catholic Elementary School (seven cases) are all linked to a potential omicron case.

Richardson recommended local school boards cancel in-person staff meetings, social gatherings, and holiday events, and have all elementary-age students to stay in cohorts during recess.

"We're looking at extending this to child-care centres as well," she said.

WATCH: Kingston, Ont., tightens COVID-19 restrictions as cases surge

Kingston, Ont., tightens COVID-19 restrictions as cases surge

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Kingston, Ont., has introduced new gathering limits and restrictions for bars and restaurants as it tries to curb a surge of COVID-19 in the community.

She said it's likely omicron will overwhelm local public health measures.

"We're also looking at ... a number of suspect omicron cases. As this continues to move forward and in the next couple of days, it's likely we will begin to treat every case like an omicron case."

Concerns about Grey Cup

Richardson said the city didn't expect to have as many cases as it does now when planning to host the Grey Cup. The CFL championship game had a record attendance of 26,324 fans, although many were outdoors and wearing masks. 

"We are somewhat concerned about what might come of the gatherings that have happened over the past several weeks," she said. "These are the kinds of capacity limits we're considering as we go forward."

Hamilton Tiger-Cats fans fill the stands during the Grey Cup. Many of the fans in this picture weren't wearing masks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

City general manager Grace Mater said bylaw officials laid 74 charges over the weekend. Of those, 26 were related to COVID-19.

She said there were 12 parks and 31 public nuisance penalties issued, all related to the Grey Cup.

What can you do to avoid omicron?

Richardson's tips are as follows:

  • Wearing a well-fitted, properly positioned mask.
  • Physically distance as much as you can.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds and dry them well.
  • Limit the size of your social gatherings and overall contacts.
  • If you're not feeling well, get tested and stay home.
  • If you have COVID-19, fully isolate from everyone.
  • Get vaccinated and get the booster shot.

"It does appear that this booster does particularly help to improve people's protection against the omicron variant," she said.

Roughly 79 per cent of all Hamiltonians have one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 74.7 per cent have two doses. Some 47,000 people have received booster shots.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.