As infections fuelled by the Omicron variant threaten to overwhelm Canada’s health system, the Quebec government on Tuesday took the unprecedented step of promising to tax adult residents who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Premier François Legault made the announcement as the province reported another daily record for virus-related hospitalizations. Of the 2,742 patients in Quebec hospitals with COVID-19, 255 of them were in intensive care.
The premier said the unvaccinated should be forced to pay for the burden they are placing on the health-care system, noting that half of those in intensive care are unvaccinated — even though that group comprises 10 per cent of the adult population. The tax would not apply to those with a medical exemption.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 3,220 hospitalizations Tuesday, with 477 patients in the ICU — 250 of them on ventilators. The Ontario Hospital Association confirmed 80 adults were admitted to hospital the previous day — the highest number of admissions so far during the pandemic.
The accelerated spread of Omicron has led to staff shortages across Canada, affecting hospitals, long-term care facilities and other essential services. As a result, non-urgent surgeries in Ontario have also been paused, affecting up to 10,000 scheduled procedures every week.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott announced that to cover staff shortages, internationally educated nurses will be allowed to work in Ontario hospitals, long-term care homes and other health settings.
After Ontario Premier Doug Ford confirmed late Monday that students will return to classrooms Jan. 17, Elliott was repeatedly asked to explain what health indicators had changed since last week to allow for the resumption of in-person learning.
“We have done everything we can to make our schools safe for our students,” she told a news conference, adding that all students would be provided with three-ply masks.
“We are taking every step that we can possibly take to make sure our schools are safe for our children …. We needed just a bit more time to get those provisions in place.”
Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said while many teachers want to return to in-person learning, some are concerned about inadequate safety measures.
“What they’ve announced so far is not enough,” Brown said. “We’re almost two years into this pandemic. Why are we still asking for those things?”
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the provinces will have enough COVID-19 vaccines to provide those eligible with a fourth dose, if they become necessary. Trudeau made the pledge in a statement late Monday after he spoke with provincial and territorial leaders, saying Ottawa will do all it can to help them cope with the fifth wave of the pandemic.
“(The premiers) expressed concern over the strain on health-care systems, businesses, workers and families across the country,” the statement said.
In New Brunswick, doctors were treating a record 88 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 14 in intensive care. Mathieu Chalifoux, the province’s chief epidemiologist, said hospitalizations could jump to 200 if current trends continue.
“We are at the start of a very high tidal wave,” said John Dornan, interim president of the province’s Horizon Health Network. “It’s creeping up now, but in the next two to three weeks it’s going to crash over us like no one’s business.”