COVID live updates: | Montreal Gazette

Opposition blasts Legault for mixed messages on Christmas gatherings. People 60+ should avoid international travel due to Omicron threat, WHO says.

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Updated throughout the day on Tuesday, Nov. 30. Questions/comments: ariga@postmedia.com

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Top updates

  • Air travellers from everywhere but the U.S. will require testing upon arrival, Ottawa announces
  • Video: Under fire from opposition, Legault says his government’s cooperating with coroner’s CHSLD inquiry
  • BioNTech CEO says vaccine likely to protect against severe COVID from Omicron
  • FAQ: What we know so far about the Omicron variant
  • ‘We will listen to public health’ on Christmas gatherings, Legault says
  • People 60+ should avoid international travel due to Omicron threat, WHO says
  • PQ, Liberals accuse Legault government of obstructing CHSLD inquiry
  • Opposition blasts Legault for mixed messages on Christmas gatherings
  • ICU admissions jump as Quebec reports 784 cases, 3 deaths
  • Quebec now has highest per-capita case count among provinces
  • Unvaccinated travellers barred from planes and passenger trains in Canada as of today
  • Montreal travellers worried Omicron variant will lead to chaos, cancelled flights
  • Sign up for our free nightly coronavirus newsletter

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5:35 p.m.

B.C. identifies first COVID-19 Omicron variant while 204 others are tested

British Columbia has become the fourth province to identify its first case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, The Canadian Press reports.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the affected person recently returned from Nigeria and lives in an area covered by the Fraser Health authority.

Henry says 204 people who recently returned from parts of southern African with outbreaks of the variant are undergoing testing while in quarantine.

The Omicron variant has also been found in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

Henry announced new restrictions for faith services heading into the Christmas holiday season with people attending and participating in those services, such as choir members, required to wear masks unless physical distancing is in place, while capacity will also be limited to 50 per cent unless every attendee is vaccinated.

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5:25 p.m.

Air travellers from everywhere but the U.S. will require testing upon arrival, Ottawa announces

Canada is barring entry to foreign nationals who have travelled to three countries over the past 14 days – Egypt, Malawi and Nigeria – as it tightens border measures to stop the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa.

Seven other countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique and Eswatini – have been targeted by the same restriction since Friday .

All travellers who have visited any of the 10 countries and arrived in Canada over the past 14 days will have to quarantine, get tested and stay in isolation until they have a negative test. That applies to the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

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Speaking at a late afternoon federal briefing in Ottawa, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos also announced all air travellers coming from outside Canada – apart from the United States – will now have to be tested at the airport at which they land in Canada.

The screening applies to all, whether vaccinated or not. Travellers will have to isolate themselves until they get results.

Duclos said airport testing will begin “quickly…over the next few days. Obviously, that cannot take place immediately everywhere at the same speed but we have full confidence in the system.”

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the “testing measures will allow us to assess the evolving situation and determine any additional appropriate measures.”

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Alghabra had a warning for people planning trips: Canadians “thinking about travelling (should) recognize that travel measures could change at any moment.”

Duclos said Ottawa is talking to the provinces before deciding whether it could or should also require people arriving by land or air from the U.S. to be tested upon arrival.

The minister also announced he has asked the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) whether guidance on COVID-19 vaccination booster shots guidance should be revised in light of the Omicron variant.

“We are asking for relatively quick advice. We know that Canadians are asking increasingly whether they should (get them) and how that should be done and that question is obviously of greater importance now with the new variant,” Duclos said.

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“We are explicitly asking NACI to come up quickly with a revised view on where and how and to whom these boosters should be administered.”

Five cases involving the Omicron vaccine have been confirmed in Canada – four in Ontario and one in Quebec, said Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada.

He said Alberta is looking into a possible sixth case.

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3:15 p.m.

Legault ‘would like’ larger holiday gatherings, but will heed public health

Following up on my earlier live coverage, here’s our full story, by Philip Authier in Quebec City, about Premier François Legault’s press conference.

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3:05 p.m.

Video: Under fire from opposition, Legault says his government’s cooperating with coroner’s CHSLD inquiry

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2:35 p.m.

BioNTech says vaccine likely to protect against severe COVID from Omicron, but Moderna boss foresees a drop in protection

From the Reuters news agency:

BioNTech and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine will likely offer strong protection against any severe disease from the new Omicron virus variant, BioNTech’s chief executive says, as the firm weighs the need to upgrade its commonly used shot.

Lab tests are underway over the next two weeks to analyze the blood of people who had two or three doses of BioNTech’s Comirnaty vaccine to see if antibodies found in that blood inactivate Omicron, shedding light on whether new vaccines are needed.

“We think it’s likely that people will have substantial protection against severe disease caused by Omicron,” said BioNTech CEO and co-founder Ugur Sahin. He specified severe disease as requiring hospital or intensive care.

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Sahin added he expects the lab tests to show some loss of vaccine protection against mild and moderate disease due to Omicron, but the extent of that loss was hard to predict.

The biotech firm is speedily working on an upgraded version of its vaccine, of which well over 2 billion doses have been delivered, although it remains unclear whether that is needed, he added.

Sahin said getting a third vaccine shot known as a booster will likely confer a layer of protection against Omicron infections of any severity compared to those with just a two-shot course.

“To my mind, there’s no reason to be particularly worried. The only thing that worries me at the moment is the fact that there are people that have not been vaccinated at all,” Sahin added.

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BioNTech’s guarded confidence contrasts with a sense of alarm conveyed by the chief executive of rival vaccine maker Moderna, Stephane Bancel, who has raised the prospect of a material drop in protection against the new coronavirus lineage from current vaccines.

“There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level . . . we had with Delta,” Bancel told the Financial Times.

“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . .are like ‘this is not going to be good’.”


2:30 p.m.

FAQ: What we know so far about the Omicron variant

From The Canadian Press:

The Omicron COVID-19 variant — which may be more transmissible — was first identified in South Africa, where it coincided with a recent spike in cases, but it’s unclear where it first emerged. Here’s what we know about it so far:

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What is Omicron?

Omicron is a new variant of COVID-19 that was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization last week. The U.N. health agency also gave the variant its name, following a classification system based on the Greek alphabet.

The WHO said the variant has “a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” and preliminary evidence suggests it has an increased risk of reinfection.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Friday that some of the mutations detected show a potential for greater transmissibility, and could reduce natural immunity as well as the immunity offered by vaccines.

Where has it been found?

Outside South Africa, Omicron cases have been confirmed in a growing number of countries. Canada, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong are among those that have reported cases.

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Spain confirmed its first case Monday, in a traveller who arrived from South Africa.

Portuguese health authorities, meanwhile, have identified 13 cases of Omicron in members of a top soccer club, and are investigating possible local transmission of the variant. That would be the first reported instance of local transmission outside of southern Africa.

Dutch health authorities said Tuesday that the Omicron variant was already in the Netherlands when South Africa reported it to the World Health Organization last week. They said the variant was detected in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23.

Canada’s first two cases, confirmed in Ottawa, are in people who recently returned from Nigeria. Two more cases were confirmed in Ottawa on Monday night, and two more possible cases are being investigated in the Hamilton region. Ontario’s top doctor said Monday it would not be surprising to see more cases, adding the province is performing genome sequencing on all eligible positive COVID-19 tests in order to help detect the variant.

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Public health units in Ontario are also offering tests to 375 people who recently returned from countries Canada considers at high risk for the variant.

Quebec confirmed its first Omicron case on Monday.

What is Canada doing?

Canada announced last week it is no longer allowing visitors from southern Africa in an effort to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.

The ban applies to foreign nationals who have been in seven listed countries over the past 14 days, including South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini. Nigeria — where several confirmed Canadian cases had been — is not on the list.

Travellers who transited through the listed countries and are already in Canada must quarantine and be tested for COVID-19. Ottawa has also issued an advisory discouraging non-essential travel to South Africa and nearby countries.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that Canada is watching the Omicron situation very closely. “There may be more we need to do and we’ll be looking at it very carefully,” he said.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Tuesday that the best available scientific and medical evidence will inform the government’s decisions.

Opposition parties and some provincial leaders have been pressing Ottawa to enact strict border measures. Ontario’s top doctor said the province wants testing for all returning travellers, regardless of where they came from.

How effective are COVID-19 vaccines against Omicron?

That isn’t yet clear, but vaccine manufacturers are looking into it.


2 p.m.

‘We will listen to public health’ on Christmas gatherings, Legault says

Premier François Legault is defending his decision on Monday to raise the prospect of much larger family gatherings this Christmas even though cases are rising, the Omicron variant looms and public health has yet to weigh in on the issue.

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At a press conference on Tuesday, a reporter asked if he went too far, noting that critics are accusing him of raising expectations and potentially causing confusion.

In response, Legault said the current restriction on gatherings in private homes – a maximum of 10 people are allowed – is too restrictive to allow large families to get together.

“I would like to be able to increase it to 20 or 25 but I clearly stated yesterday and I’ll state it again today: we will listen to the recommendations from public health,” Legault said.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s public health director, has said he will not announce his guidelines for Christmas gatherings before Dec. 6.

Legault added: “My objective would be to allow Quebecers to go up to 20 or 25 in homes.”

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1:15 p.m.

People 60+ should avoid international travel due to Omicron threat, WHO says

The World Health Organization today published advice related to international travel.

Among its recommendations: “Persons who are unwell or at risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes), should be advised to postpone travel.”

Read the full WHO document here.


11:15 a.m.

Opposition accuses Legault government of obstructing CHSLD inquiry

Opposition parties have accused the Legault government of obstructing the progress of an inquest into deaths in Quebec’s long-term care centres (CHSLDs) during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Liberals and Parti Québécois saying they suspect the provincial government manufactured from scratch a document submitted to presiding coroner Géhane Kamel.

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Read our full story.

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12:30 p.m.

Opposition blasts Legault for mixed messages on Christmas gatherings

With cases rising and uncertainty over the impact of a potentially difficult new variant, Quebec is sending mixed messages about the size of Christmas gatherings this year.

And opposition parties at the National Assembly are urging Premier François Legault to resist the urge to raise expectations.

On Monday, Health Minister Christian Dubé and public-health director Dr. Horacio Arruda sounded cautious in the wake of the sudden arrival of the variant, known as Omicron.

A few hours later, Premier François Legault raised the prospect that Quebec could loosen restrictions for gatherings in homes before Christmas.

At a pandemic briefing, Dubé and Arruda said whether restrictions on gatherings in homes are tightened, loosened or stay the same will depend on the epidemiological situation and what scientists discover about Omicron – specifically whether it is more contagious and how effective vaccines are against it.

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Arruda said Quebec will not announce holiday guidelines before Dec. 6.

Dubé stressed the importance of continuing to follow pandemic measures.

Many Quebecers “think the health crisis is behind us but we see that unfortunately, it’s not,” the minister said.

“And I remind everybody that gatherings in houses are still limited to 10 people. And that’s important because we see that many cases come from that. It’s (also) not permitted to rent a chalet to have a Christmas party – the rule is the same: 10 people maximum.”

Dubé also urged Quebecers to think twice before booking international travel because rules regarding re-entry into Canada could be tightened due to the Omicron threat.

Legault later offered a more optimistic outlook.

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“Personally, I hope to get the OK so that during the holiday season we are able to increase to 20 to 25” the allowed number of people at holiday gatherings of friends and family, Legault said.

“But for now, I will listen to the recommendations of public health.”

Legault was speaking to reporters at the inauguration of the Club Med Québec Charlevoix in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François.

Opposition parties today criticized the Coalition Avenir Québec government for the conflicting messages.

“What is the rationale, what is the need to create expectations many weeks in advance? It’s exactly what was done a year ago, when we told people that Christmas would be great, only to backtrack afterwards,” said Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon. “We need to stop doing that.”

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Liberal House Leader André Fortin said: “We want the opinions of public health to be clear on this issue, to be available as soon as they are confirmed or finalized… What is problematic is that on the same day the health minister says ‘Pay attention, the rule is 10 people’… the premier publicly says that he would like it to be 20 or 25.”

Fortin added: “If we want the rules to be respected, we can’t just throw wishes in the air like that. This is what creates confusion among Quebecers, this is what creates uncertainty about the rules. So I would like the premier to show the same diligence as his health minister.”

Québec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said Legault is “playing a dangerous game.”

He added: “I do not understand this habit of François Legault to launch test balloons, to raise hopes which could lead to disappointment later. We must not play with people’s mental health. We must not play with their hopes of finally having a beautiful Christmas.”

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11:15 a.m.

Updated charts: Quebec cases, deaths


11:15 a.m.

Update on Quebec’s vaccination campaign


11:05 a.m.

ICU admissions jump as Quebec reports 784 cases, 3 deaths

Quebec has recorded 784 new cases of COVID-19, the provincial government announced this morning.

The number of patients in intensive care units jumped by six – the biggest one-day increase since mid-September.

Quebec has more than 50 people in ICUs for the first time in three weeks.

The province’s seven-day rolling average of new cases is now 915 – the highest since early May.

Three new deaths were reported.

Some other key statistics from Quebec’s latest COVID-19 update:

  • Montreal Island: 233 new cases, 1 death.
  • Net increase in hospitalizations: 1, for total of 227 (25 entered hospital, 24 discharged).
  • Net increase in intensive care patients: 6, for total of 51 (9 entered ICUs, 3 discharged).
  • 19,732 vaccine doses administered over previous 24 hours.
  • Positivity rate: 3 per cent.

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The Health Department said that due to a technical problem it could not provide the number of tests conducted on Sunday.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Quebec has reported 448,171 cases and 11,579 deaths linked to COVID-19.


10:05 a.m.

Quebec now has highest per-capita case count among provinces

For much of the fall, Quebec’s per capita case count was among the lowest in Canada. But in recent weeks, the infection rate has been creeping upward.

The latest federal statistics show it now has the highest rate among provinces.

Over the last seven days, Quebec has reported 89 cases per 100,000 people.

New Brunswick and Saskatchewan registered the second-highest rate – 67 per 100,000.

The national average: 52.

It’s unclear why cases in Quebec are growing more quickly than in other provinces.

On Monday, Health Minister Christian Dubé acknowledged Quebec’s rising case counts but said he is encouraged by the fact that the increase in hospitalizations has been “minimal.”

Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province’s public health director, said he expected cases to increase in the fall as people spend more time indoors.

Quebec eased some restrictions this month, lifting capacity limits on bars and restaurants, allowing dancing and karaoke in bars, and eliminating the mask mandate for high school students in classrooms.

At 188, the Yukon territory’s per capita rate is higher than that of Quebec. Facing major outbreaks, Yukon only this month made masks mandatory in indoor public settings and introduced a vaccine-passport system.

Here’s the rate of case growth per 100,000 people over the past seven days, via the federal government’s latest epidemiological update:

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9:45 a.m.

Unvaccinated travellers barred from planes and passenger trains in Canada as of today

From The Canadian Press:

Unvaccinated travellers over the age of 12 won’t be able to board a plane or passenger train in Canada beginning today, and a negative COVID-19 test will no longer serve as a substitute for most people.

The policy came into effect on Oct. 30, but the federal government allowed a short transition period for unvaccinated travellers who could board as long as they provided a negative molecular COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before their trip.

The stringent new requirement comes into effect as Canada reacts to the emergence of the new, highly mutated Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The discovery of the new variant has prompted border closures and heavier screening in Canada and abroad over fears it could prove more transmissible.

The risk related to the Omicron variant is very high, according to the World Health Organization, but there is still a lot that public health officials and scientists do not know about it.

While anyone coming into Canada or boarding a plane or train inside the country must be vaccinated, there are currently no quarantine measures in place except for people who have recently transited through southern Africa.

While many airlines have so far been doing random spot checks to ensure travellers are vaccinated, Air Canada and West Jet have confirmed they will ask for proof from everyone boarding in Canada as of today.

Other measures, like masks and health screenings, will still be mandatory.

“If you indicate to your airline or railway company that you’re eligible to board, but fail to provide proof of vaccination or valid COVID-19 test result, you won’t be allowed to travel and could face penalties or fines,” the government’s website states.

The rule does not apply to commuter trains.

The government has issued warnings on social media that even Canadians and permanent residents abroad will not be able to return home without a full slate of approved vaccines.

There are some exceptions, including valid medical exemptions, travel to remote communities only accessible by plane, and those transiting through Canada en route to another destination.


9:30 a.m.

Montreal travellers worried Omicron variant will lead to chaos, cancelled flights

Anxious travellers at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport expressed worry and exasperation Monday over talk of new travel restrictions due to mounting concerns about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

With Quebec and Ontario urging the federal government to impose testing for the new variant on all international travellers upon arrival at airports, and some countries closing their borders to foreigners altogether, several travellers who spoke to the Montreal Gazette said they fear complications abroad and when they try to come back to Canada.

Read our full story, by Michelle Lalonde.


9:30 a.m.

Opinion: Omicron is putting a damper on the holiday spirit

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“After last year’s scuttled holiday plans, a long winter of curfews and an anxious wait to get vaccinated against COVID-19, this Christmas was supposed to be a more festive one. We were supposed to be able to gather with family and friends now that so many of us have had two or even three doses. We were supposed to be able to celebrate the approval of shots for children between the ages of five and 11, with many rushing to get a first jab before the holidays to keep loved ones as safe as possible.

“But Omicron may put a damper on some of those plans.”

Read the latest column by Allison Hanes.


9:30 a.m.

Canadians score an F on ParticipACTION’s fitness report card

Rather than use the additional spare time created by telecommuting and lockdowns to exercise more, most Canadians appear to have decided since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to do as little as possible, a strategy that has earned them an F on ParticipACTION’s Adult Report Card on Physical Activity.

Read our full story.


9:15 a.m.

A guide to Quebec’s COVID-19 vaccine passport

Quebec’s vaccine passport is mandatory for people 13 and older who want to access services and activities deemed non-essential by the provincial government, including bars, restaurants, gyms, festivals and sporting events.

Quebecers can use a smartphone app to prove their vaccination status or simply carry their QR code on paper.

The app is available from Apple’s App Store and Google Play .

We have published two guides to the passports – one looks at how to download and set up the app , and another answers key questions about the system, including how, when and why.

You can find more information on the Quebec government’s website – one page has details on how the system works, and another has a list of the places where a vaccine passport will be required .

A test scan of a vaccine passport is shown at an Econofitness gym in Laval on Aug. 17, 2021.
A test scan of a vaccine passport is shown at an Econofitness gym in Laval on Aug. 17, 2021. Photo by Christinne Muschi /REUTERS

9:15 a.m.

A guide to COVID-19 vaccinations in Quebec

Local health authorities have set up mass vaccination sites across Montreal.

You can book appointments via the Clic Santé website or by phone at 1-877-644-4545.

Quebecers can also visit walk-in AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer vaccine clinics .

Here are the nuts and bolts of getting vaccinated , by Katherine Wilton. Her guide includes the age groups targeted, how to book appointments, and addresses of vaccination centres.


9:15 a.m.

Here are the current pandemic restrictions in Montreal and Quebec

We are regularly updating our list of what services are open, closed or modified in Montreal and Quebec, including information on the curfew and other lockdown measures.

You can read it here.


9:15 a.m.

Here’s where Montrealers can get tested today

Montrealers can be screened at test centres across the island.

For other parts of Quebec, check out this page on the Quebec government’s site .


8:30 a.m.

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You can sign up here .


ariga@postmedia.com

Read my previous live blogs here.


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