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Ontario sees 1,536 new COVID cases, estimated 30.8% caused by omicron variant

Ontario reported 1,536 further cases of COVID-19 on Monday, as the province's science advisory group estimated that 30.8 per cent of all new infections are being caused by the omicron variant.

Ontarians aged 50 and older can book COVID-19 boosters starting today

A care-home worker gets the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario reported 1,536 further cases of COVID-19 on Monday, as the province's science advisory group estimated that 30.8 per cent of all new infections are being caused by the omicron variant.

Today's case count is a 73 per cent jump over the same time last week. The seven-day average of daily cases has climbed to 1,328, its highest point in more than six months and a 41 per cent rise from last Monday.

According to Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, cases due to omicron are on pace to double every three days.

That means by the end of the week, omicron could account for roughly 50 per cent of all infections in the province. Within 10 days, it will likely account for more than 95 per cent of all new cases, said Peter Jüni, the group's scientific director, in an interview with CBC News Network.

Twenty-nine of Ontario's 34 public health units are currently reporting exponential growth in new cases. 

Jüni said the transmissibility of omicron should compel the province to ramp up its booster shot campaign as quickly as possible for all adults.

Real-world data suggests a third dose, for those who had their second more than three months ago, offers robust protection against severe illness from the variant, Jüni said. As of Sunday, 1,128,482 people in Ontario had received a third dose or a booster shot.

There are also hopeful signs that omicron may not cause as severe illness as previous variants, such as delta, though Jüni cautioned it is still too early to know for certain.

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that out of the 43 omicron cases identified in 22 states in early December, just ​​one person needed a brief hospital stay, and there were no reported deaths from the variant.

Moreover, despite record-high case counts, scientists in South Africa have not yet seen evidence that omicron is causing more serious illness, which could either be a sign of things to come or a delay in the true impact it will have there. 

Jüni pointed out that in Gauteng, the South African province hit hardest by omicron, up to 93 per cent of those infected with the variant had some degree of immunity already, either from a previous infection or via vaccination.

He said there is currently no evidence to suggest that it could result in milder infections for unvaccinated people here in Ontario. 

As of Sunday evening in Ontario, there were 161 people being treated for COVID-related illnesses in intensive care units, down somewhat from 165 last Monday. Of those in ICU, 90 needed help from a ventilator to breathe.

WATCH | Peter Jüni discusses how Ontario can combat the spread of omicron:

What worked before will work again in fight against omicron, says Ontario science adviser

5 months ago
Duration 8:57
Though he expects a 'massive wave' of omicron cases, Dr. Peter Jüni, the head of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, says strategies that worked earlier in the pandemic will work again against omicron.

Ontario Public Service postpones return to workplaces

The Ontario Public Service (OPS) is "temporarily interrupting" its return to the workplace plans for provincial government staff, CBC News has learned.

A memo from OPS Head Michelle E. DiEmanuele to employees that was obtained by CBC News said the decision was made in line with the latest public health guidance from the province's chief medical officer of health.

"Over the next week, we are asking all managers to assess operational requirements at the local level and what work can be carried on remotely, and to communicate with teams and individuals," said the memo to the 60,000-member service.

The postponement takes effect Friday and will last until Feb. 7, 2022, though the memo said employees could be asked to return to their workplaces in person before then. In that case, two weeks notice will be given, DiEmanuele said.

At a news conference last Friday, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, recommended that anyone who is able to work from home do so as the province faces down a surge in new COVID-19 cases.

Booster hopefuls report problems with booking portal

Ontario's portal for booking COVID-19 vaccines appeared to crash on Monday morning as residents 50 and older who received their second shot at least six months ago became eligible for booster doses.

The provincial vaccine booking platform opened for appointments at 8 a.m., but shortly afterwards showed a message to try again later.

Social media users reported a number of problems on social media and expressed frustration with the province's online booking system.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the portal was "experiencing an intermittent technical issue" and the government is working to fix it.

"As of this morning, the provincial booking system is experiencing high volumes of demand, with 3.4 million more Ontarians aged 50-69 becoming eligible to receive their booster dose," Alexandra Hilkene said.

"We ask individuals to be patient and to keep trying. People are also able to call the provincial vaccine line to book an appointment at 1-833-943-3900."

Hilkene said the "intermittent technical issue" that came amid "high volumes of demand" was resolved about five hours after bookings opened. By 3 p.m., Elliott said on Twitter that 115,000 Ontarians had signed up to get boosters through the online portal.

Residents can also book through the provincial phone line, at pharmacies and some primary care sites and through public health units using their own systems.

Hilkene said in a separate statement that the Health Ministry is working with local public health units to ramp up booster vaccination capacity as more information about Omicron emerges.

Highest positivity rate since May 25

Booster eligibility is set to open up to all adults on Jan. 4 but the province's top doctor has said the schedule could move faster if capacity allows.

Monday is also the deadline for long-term care workers in the province to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Staff, students and volunteers can't enter long-term care homes without proof of both doses.

Ontario on Monday morning reported a 5.5 per cent positivity rate on 38,331 tests, the highest rate since May 25.

The Ministry of Health also recorded the death of one more person with COVID-19, pushing the official toll to 10,079. 

With files from Mike Crawley, Adam Miller and The Canadian Press

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