Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Dec. 23
B.C., Ontario, Quebec, N.B., N.S., and P.E.I. shatter previous COVID-19 case counts
B.C. continues to smash COVID-19 records, reporting 2,046 new cases.
Manitoba warns of four-day turnaround for test results.
Tired of waiting, some British Columbians hop across the border for booster shots, rapid tests.
Top doctor urges Albertans to use rapid tests, not PCR tests, to ease burden on labs.
- COVID-19 might have lasting impacts on the way Canada handles immigration, minister says.
- Alberta UCP holds Christmas party after health minister asked all to cancel plans.
- Montreal public health warns it is a 'critical time' as hospitalizations, cases rise.
- China orders 13 million residents into lockdown as cases rise.
- How you can take back control in this never-ending pandemic.
- Track the surge in COVID-19 cases here.
Canada reported more than 20,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time on Thursday, a culmination of a record-shattering day that saw several provinces confirm new highs in infections.
According to the CBC News coronavirus tracker, the country registered 20,699 infections, eclipsing the previous record of 14,465 set the day before.
New single-day highs were seen in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island on Thursday.
Quebec recorded a whopping 9,397 new cases, while Ontario recorded 5,790 new cases.
Ontario's case count eclipsed the previous high of 4,812, set back in mid-April, while Quebec's previous high of 6,361 was Wednesday.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said this week that record-high daily case counts were expected and will likely continue for several weeks.
In Montreal, officials confirmed that one of every five Montrealers getting tested for COVID-19 is positive — and the latest data confirms that 90 per cent of infections in the city involve the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Mylène Drouin, of Montreal public health, says 60 per cent of the positive cases in the city are among people between the ages of 18 and 44, noting that contact tracers cannot keep up with the crush of new infections.
Several studies (see the "latest science" section below) suggest the Omicron variant is milder than Delta. But researchers say that good news may be overshadowed by the fact that Omicron spreads much faster than Delta and is better at evading vaccines.
As a result, the sheer number of infections linked to Omicron could still overwhelm hospitals.
-From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 7:16 p.m. ET
What's happening elsewhere in Canada
For more details on how COVID-19 is impacting your community — including hospital data and the latest on restrictions — check out the coverage from CBC newsrooms around the country.
WATCH | Omicron predominant in several areas across Canada:
In the Western provinces, B.C. reported 2,046 new cases Thursday, a new high, after the province shut down bars, nightclubs and gyms Wednesday and banned gatherings such as weddings. It's the third day in a row that the province's COVID-19 case numbers have hit new highs. On Wednesday, a report from an independent COVID-19 modelling group said hospitalizations due to B.C.'s Omicron-fuelled fifth wave will reach unprecedented heights by around mid-January.
Alberta reported 1,625 new cases Thursday. The province's chief medical officer of health said Albertans should use rapid tests to confirm whether they have COVID-19 if they show symptoms, rather than booking PCR tests. She noted that lab capacity has been strained in Quebec and Ontario, where Omicron is causing case counts to spike.
Saskatchewan reported 194 new cases and one additional death Thursday. The province's Opposition and a health analyst are both questioning the government's lack of response to a potential Omicron surge. Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab released new modelling Tuesday predicting that without additional health measures the province's daily case count will surpass 300 in one month. Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili said "there is a shocking disconnect" between what the modelling is showing and the government not implementing additional measures. "It makes zero sense."
In New Brunswick, officials announced 257 new cases Thursday and another two deaths. The province's chief medical officer of health is urging people to keep their gatherings small.
Nova Scotia also reported a new high Thursday, with 689 new cases.
One new death and 556 new cases were reported Thursday in Manitoba. The province warned that it has hit its capacity for processing tests and there is now a four-day wait for results. Current case counts are an undercount because of the delay, the government said.
Prince Edward Island on Thursday announced new restrictions and a record 35 new cases. Starting Friday at 8 a.m., wedding and funeral receptions as well as wakes and visitations will no longer be permitted. Organized gatherings such as worship services, wedding and funeral ceremonies, concerts and shows will be capped at 50 people, and schools won't return to in-person learning until at least Jan. 10. The province has 165 active cases, more than the total number of cases it had during the entire first year of the pandemic.
Newfoundland and Labrador is back in COVID-19 Alert Level 3 as of Thursday morning, the change brought on by a rapid increase in cases, the emergence of the Omicron variant and outbreaks found across three of the province's regional health authorities. At Level 3, people are asked to stay home as much as possible and to maintain a household bubble of up to 20 people. The province reported 100 new cases Thursday, the highest count since February.
Yukon reported nine new cases Thursday.
WATCH | Doctors, public officials receiving more threats as pandemic frustrations mount:
Nunavut is tightening COVID-19 public health restrictions in Iqaluit, including restricting travel in and out of the capital city to essential purposes only.
The territory says starting at noon today the city's swimming pool, theatre and hair and nail salons must close. Restaurants are limited to takeout food only. Indoor gatherings in homes are limited to five people plus household members.
In the Northwest Territories, people identified as a contact of someone who has COVID-19 by a public health official in the N.W.T. must isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status. The new public health order came into effect Wednesday at 5 p.m.
-From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 6:26 p.m. ET
The latest science
Two new British studies provide some early hints that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder than the Delta version.
Scientists stress that even if the findings of these early studies hold up, any reductions in severity need to be weighed against the fact that Omicron spreads quickly and is more able to evade vaccines, so infections could still overwhelm hospitals. Some experts also say more people are likely to have some level of immunity at this stage of the pandemic, either through vaccination or a previous infection.
Still, the studies seem to bolster earlier research that suggests Omicron may not be as harmful as Delta, said Manuel Ascano Jr., a Vanderbilt University biochemist who studies viruses.
"Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this," he said.
An analysis from the Imperial College London COVID-19 response team estimated hospitalization risks for Omicron cases in England, finding people infected with the variant are around 20 per cent less likely to go to the hospital than those with Delta, and 40 per cent less likely to be hospitalized for a night or more.
A separate study out of Scotland, by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and other experts, suggested the risk of hospitalization was two-thirds less with Omicron than Delta. But that study pointed out that the nearly 24,000 Omicron cases in Scotland were predominantly among younger adults, who are much less likely to develop severe cases.
Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, has also suggested Omicron might be milder there.
In other science news, a third dose of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines significantly increased the immune response to the Omicron variant, according to a new study by University of Oxford researchers.
The laboratory study, which hasn't been peer reviewed yet, compared antibody levels in blood samples from people who received two doses of vaccine with samples from those who received a third dose.
While two doses provided much less protection against Omicron than earlier variants, levels of neutralizing antibodies rose sharply after a third dose, the study found.
U.S. health regulators on Thursday authorized the second pill against COVID-19, providing another easy-to-use medication to battle the rising tide of omicron infections.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorization of Merck's molnupiravir comes one day after the agency cleared a competing drug from Pfizer. That pill, Paxlovid, is likely to become the first-choice treatment against the virus, thanks to its superior benefits and milder side effects.
As a result, Merck's pill is expected to have a smaller role against the pandemic than predicted just a few weeks ago. Its ability to head off severe COVID-19 is much smaller (30 per cent) than initially announced and the drug label will warn of serious safety issues, including the potential for birth defects.
What's happening around the world
As of early Thursday, more than 277.9 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University's case-tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.3 million.
In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has recorded its highest daily number of coronavirus cases since August. The tourism hub on Thursday reported 1,000 new infections — a drastic surge from record lows just weeks ago, before the spread of Omicron.
In the Americas, Ecuador is making vaccination mandatory. The government said Thursday that only Ecuadorians with a medical condition that could be complicated by vaccination will be exempt. About 33,600 people in Ecuador have died from COVID-19.
The U.S. Supreme Court says it will hold a special session to weigh challenges to two Biden administration policies covering vaccine requirements for millions of workers and affecting large employers and health-care workers. The high court said it will hear arguments in the cases on Jan. 7, an extraordinarily fast timeline.
In South Carolina, where COVID-19 cases are rising and only about half of eligible residents are fully vaccinated, hospitals are concerned an Omicron surge would worsen a staffing crunch among doctors, nurses and other frontline workers. Hospitals in some regions are already contending with high vacancy rates, especially among specialty nurses and lower-wage jobs like emergency room registration clerks, according to hospital officials.
In the Asia-Pacific region, officials in Thailand say an Israeli tourist who was the subject of a nationwide police manhunt after breaking out of quarantine while apparently infected with the Omicron variant has been detained. The 29-year-old man will be charged with breaking quarantine regulations, deported and banned from Thailand for life following his release from hospital detention, authorities said.
South Korea has set a new record for daily COVID-19 deaths as it struggles to resolve a shortage of hospital beds amid weeks of surging cases. Officials said Thursday that 109 people died in the last 24-hour period.
In Europe, two countries in the Balkan region, Albania and Serbia, where less than half of people are fully vaccinated, have reported their first two cases of the Omicron variant.
Around 1.2 million people in England were likely infected with COVID-19 last week, representing 1 in 45 of the population and a new pandemic record as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly, official estimates showed on Thursday.
Italy is planning to tighten restrictions to try to curb a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, including making mask wearing mandatory outdoors again, the prime minister's office said on Thursday.
Australia has reintroduced curbs such as indoor mask-wearing, capacity limits and QR code check-ins to cover most of the population as daily infections hit a record high.
-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 6:22 p.m. ET
With files from The Associated Press, The Canadian Press and Reuters