People wait in line for a walk-in PCR COVID-19 test site in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021. Health officials in Ontario are reporting 5,790 new cases today, a tally that is well above the previous single-day high of 4,812 set back in April.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Latest COVID-19 numbers from Ontario and Quebec point to rapid infection surges

Latest COVID-19 numbers from Ontario and Quebec point to rapid infection surges

Canada’s two largest provinces reported record high COVID-19 cases counts Thursday, as preliminary data from Britain indicated that people with the Omicron variant are up to 70 per cent less likely to need hospitalization than those with the Delta mutation.

In Quebec, the provincial government reported 9,397 new cases and a rise of 28 COVID-19-related hospitalizations, for a total of 473. The province also reported six more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus.

As well, exponential growth in COVID-19 cases was reported in Montreal, where a top health official confirmed that one of every five tests for the virus was coming back positive. Dr. Mylène Drouin said that 60 per cent of the positive cases in Montreal were among people between the ages of 18 and 44, adding that the city’s latest data also confirm that 90 per cent of new infections involved the Omicron variant.

“The message is we are having intense community transmission in Montreal,” Drouin told a news conference. “It’s exponential — it’s touching young adults.”

Another big upswing in cases was reported Thursday in Ontario, with 5,790 new cases detected. That tally was well above the previous single-day high of 4,812 recorded back in April. Canada’s most populous province also confirmed seven new deaths attributed to the virus. In all, 400 people were recovering in hospital, including 136 who were not vaccinated.

Despite the big increase in Ontario, an expert says the latest numbers represent a poor guess because testing is not keeping up with the Omicron-driven fifth wave of the pandemic.

“In all likelihood, you’d have to multiply these numbers at least three or four times to get a sense of what’s actually happening,” said. Dr. Fahad Razaka, a member of the province’s science table.

Prince Edward Island also posted a new record for its daily case count on Thursday: 35. That prompted the Island’s government to ban all wedding receptions, funeral receptions and wakes as of Friday at 8 a.m.

Records were also broken in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Meanwhile, the latest findings from the U.K. Health Security Agency add to emerging evidence that Omicron produces milder illness than other variants, though it spreads faster and better evades vaccines. The agency said that based on cases in the U.K., an individual with Omicron is estimated to be “50 to 70 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital” when compared with a person infected with the Delta variant.

The agency, however, cautioned that the analysis is preliminary and “highly uncertain” because of the small number of Omicron patients in hospitals and the fact that most cases involved younger age groups. The research said the protection a vaccine booster shot gives against Omicron infections appears to wane after about 10 weeks, though protection against hospitalization and severe disease is likely to hold up for longer.

The analysis follows two studies, from Imperial College London and Scottish researchers, that found patients with Omicron were between 20 per cent and 68 per cent less likely to require hospital treatment than those with Delta.

“Cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to look at this,” said Manuel Ascano Jr., a biochemist who studies viruses at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

On Wednesday night, Quebec Premier François Legault announced a new layer of COVID-19 restrictions for the province. As of this Sunday, all private gatherings will be limited to six people or to two-family bubbles. Restaurants, which are already operating at half capacity, will also have to limit groups at tables to six people or two families.

Several provinces recently reinstated stricter public health measures in response to Omicron, including caps on social gatherings and closures of some businesses.

Canada’s public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has confirmed the Omicron variant has become the dominant mutation of COVID-19 in several provinces. Infections across Canada have risen from an average of 5,000 per day last week to more than 11,000 this week, which is why Tam has called for urgent action to curb the spread of Omicron.

In Alberta, the Opposition NDP said Thursday the governing United Conservative Party showed hypocrisy by going ahead with a Christmas party in Edmonton a few hours after the health minister encouraged workplaces to cancel holiday gatherings.

NDP house leader Christina Gray said Albertans are sick of the government not following its own advice. UCP spokesman Dave Prisco said government officials decided to proceed with the party because it was at reduced capacity.

In Nunavut, public health restrictions have been tightened in Iqaluit. They include a ban on non-essential travel in and out of the capital city. Officials said the changes were necessary because a case of COVID-19 had been detected in a person who had not left Iqaluit for more than a month, a likely sign of community transmission.

In Saskatchewan, the province’s Opposition New Democrats asked why the government has yet to announce new measures to deal with Omicron. NDP Leader Ryan Meili said he couldn’t understand why Saskatchewan is the only province that hasn’t taken any new steps, even though the government’s modelling suggests Omicron cases could skyrocket over the next few weeks.

Meili noted that Saskatchewan has the lowest vaccination rate in the country.

In British Columbia, the province’s seniors advocate has called on the government to make COVID-19 rapid tests widely available for people to use before visiting loved ones at risk of severe illness. The statement from Isobel Mackenzie was released as the province reported its highest daily case count, with more than 1,400 new infections Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press, Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Nicole Thompson in Toronto.

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press