Today’s coronavirus news: Ontario to extend boosters to those 18 and over; Ontarians

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

8:43 p.m.: Forty-three infections with the Omicron variant were identified in 22 states during the first eight days of December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday, offering a first glimpse of the variant’s course in the United States.

One individual, who was vaccinated, required a brief hospital stay, and there were no deaths. The most common symptoms were cough, fatigue and congestion or a runny nose. The first cases appeared to be mild, but the report warned that “as with all variants, a lag exists between infection and more severe outcomes.”

Omicron, which has been deemed a variant of concern, is believed to be even more transmissible than the Delta variant, which continues to account for virtually all coronavirus infections in the United States.

The actual number of Omicron cases is almost certainly higher, but to what extent is uncertain. The country initiated enhanced genomic surveillance Nov. 28 in order to increase the detection of Omicron, and an average of 50,000 to 60,000 coronavirus-positive specimens are now being sequenced every week.

The new variant contains mutations that may make it somewhat resistant to available treatments and to the body’s immune defences, experts say.

Young adults under the age of 40 accounted for most of the Omicron cases. The majority — 34 individuals, representing 79% of the total — were fully vaccinated when they had their first symptoms or tested positive.

Fourteen of these people had received a booster dose before their diagnoses, and six had previously been infected with the coronavirus.

About one-third of those infected with Omicron had travelled internationally in the two weeks before testing positive or developing symptoms, indicating that the variant is spreading locally in communities, the report said.

Read the full story here.

8:20 p.m.: British Columbia health officials say 10 cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have now been identified in the province.

The Health Ministry said in a news release Friday the variant of concern has been found in the Vancouver Coastal, Fraser and Island Health regions.

It says the province has 437 new cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths.

Of the 2,994 active cases of COVID-19, the ministry says 211 of the infected are in hospital and 72 in intensive care.

It says 86 per cent of those five and older have received the first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 82.2 per cent of them have had their second dose.

Officials say 13 per cent of those who are 12 and older have been given their booster shot.

7:20 p.m.: On Sunday, everyone had to show proof of double vaccination, writes Star columnist Bruce Arthur. Masks were worn except when eating, or some conversations, or taking pictures. That may sound a little like being in a restaurant right now, or a bar, or any number of places in Ontario.

It was a gala, where Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who got a third-shot booster two months ago, caught COVID for the first time in his life. Everyone at the sold-out Wizards game Sunday is being asked to self-monitor for symptoms.

Omicron is different. It’s been nearly two years, and people want to move on. I know. But the nightmare is here; not for Ujiri, but for the province. Omicron is different from anything we have ever seen.

“This is the scariest it has been since this pandemic started,” says Dr. Beate Sander, a scientist and modeller at University Health Network, a Canadian Research Chair in the economics of infectious diseases, and the head of Ontario’s independent volunteer science table’s modelling group.

“Honestly, I’m not sure I have been as worried as I am now. Probably not. I remember the very first wave, but in the first wave, we didn’t really know what’s coming. And now we know what is coming. New information is coming out pretty much every hour, so it’s just really, really hard to kind of pin something down, and some of the estimates that we talked about this morning that should go into the models are already, almost outdated.

“And what makes me really so concerned is that every piece of information that’s coming out seems to make it worse.”

Read the full column from Bruce Arthur here.

6 p.m.: Toronto Public Health says it is working with organizers of the weekend gala where Raptors vice-chairman and president Masai Ujiri is believed to have contracted COVID-19, in order to assess the potential risks to other guests.

“We are aware of this situation and have followed our standard process,” said TPH spokesperson Lenore Bromley.

TPH is also asking anyone who attended the game between the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards at Scotiabank Arena on Dec. 5 — the same night as the gala — to self-monitor for signs of COVID for ten days, go for testing if they develop symptoms, and self-isolate while results are pending.

Several cases of COVID have been linked to the Giants of Africa event on Sunday, which was attended by celebrities and high-profile officials, including comedian Russell Peters and Liberal MP Marci Ien, minister for women and gender equality and youth.

Read the full story here from Francine Kopun

5:40 p.m.: Nova Scotia reported 123 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, including 55 more cases linked to an ongoing outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University.

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, said the latest figures brought the total number related to the university’s X-Ring graduation ceremony held last weekend in Antigonish, N.S., to 114.

The provincial numbers included 56 cases in the Halifax area, 60 in the eastern zone, which includes Antigonish, six in the northern zone and one in the western zone.

Strang said a number of the new cases reported in the Halifax area are likely related to the university outbreak because some people travelled to the school from the capital last weekend, while students who live in Antigonish but are from Halifax are recorded in the central zone because of the address on their provincial health card.

Strang said it is still the case that those infected in the outbreak are experiencing relatively mild symptoms, and the cases are mostly among young people who are fully vaccinated.

4:44 p.m. Ontarians are being urged to keep gatherings small for the holiday season with the more contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 rapidly spreading, the Star’s Rob Ferguson.

After just arriving in November, Omicron could completely replace the dominant Delta strain in Ontario “by the beginning of January” and already comprises 10 per cent of cases, chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, revealed Friday.

But he did not issue any orders to shrink gathering limits — now set at 25 inside and 100 outside — or impose any new restrictions as he announced Ontarians 18 and older will become eligible for booster shots Jan. 4, in addition to those 50 and older on Monday.

As the Star reported previously, the province is also extending the proof-of-vaccination system indefinitely and clamping down on questionable medical exemptions for shots.

“The smaller the better,” Moore said when asked about the size of social gatherings.

“I know many already had plans,” he added, urging families to be cautious and assess the risks for friends and loved ones.

“Even with vaccination, it appears with Omicron that you can still transmit it with two doses vaccinated. I would ensure even in those venues going forward that we’d have to be masked in those social settings to best protect our elderly, our frail, and anyone immune-suppressed.”

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said this week the jury is still out on whether Omicron is more dangerous than Delta.

“Emerging data from South Africa suggests increased risk of reinfection with Omicron,” he said Wednesday, stressing “there is also some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta.”

Moore shot down rumours circulating on Twitter that schools will shut down early for an extended Christmas break because of Omicron’s trend toward dominance.

“That may change our approach, but at present we’re not contemplating any early closure or delayed opening of the school system.”

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Omicron increases the importance for Ontarians to get their first, second or booster shots “to reduce the risk of transmission” and protect the capacity of hospitals to provide a wide range of medical services.

While the province is administering about 70,000 shots a day, the goal is to reach 120,000 soon “given how quickly this is moving,” added Moore, who hinted at getting more medical professionals involved.

The accelerated boosters are a change of heart for Moore and the science table of health advisors, who had resisted a broader booster shot program last summer over concerns Ontario was…

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