The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 23

December 24, 2021
The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 23

Amelie and Ludo Khayat hold each other during a visit at the COVID-19 intensive care unit of la Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, Thursday. Ludo, 41, is recovering from spending 24 days in a coma and on a ventilator. Amelie began visiting her husband daily after he started to test negative for the virus. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

Canadians head into second COVID Christmas as cases surge

As Canadians head into a second COVID Christmas, health officials are asking — and in some cases, mandating — that Canadians keep their gatherings small, as the hardest-hit provinces ramp up booster campaigns amid the threat of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Quebec reported 9,397 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, one of several provinces reporting record daily cases the day before Christmas Eve.

In Montreal, 181 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19, an increase of 60 per cent over last week.

“This is a critical time for Montreal’s health networks as holiday gatherings approach,” said Dr. Mylène Drouin, the city’s director of public health. “We are now feeling the impact of rising case numbers on hospitalizations.”

The positivity rate in Montreal is hovering around 18-20 per cent, meaning one in five people who do receive a PCR test are positive.

While the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is sweeping across Montreal boroughs, most patients currently in hospitals are infected with the Delta variant. Drouin said the effects of Omicron on hospitalizations won’t be known for another seven to 10 days.

Quebec on Wednesday announced that as of Dec. 26, indoor gatherings in the province will be limited to six people, or two family bubbles. Restaurants will also be limited to serving groups of six, or two family bubbles.

Ontarians are already under stricter gathering limits. As of Dec. 19, indoor social gathering limits were reduced from 25 people to 10, and outdoor gatherings were reduced from 100 people to 25. Capacity limits were also reduced to 50 per cent for restaurants and many other businesses.

The province reported a new daily high of 5,790 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. Positivity rates also continued to spike, with Public Health Ontario reporting a 16 per cent positivity rate from 68,191 tests, by far the highest level ever seen in the province.

On Monday, Ontario expanded booster-shot eligibility to anyone over the age of 18, provided at least three months have passed since their second dose. The province has issued an appeal to firefighters, dentists and retired doctors and nurses to help administer the shots.

Quebec has also sped up the timeline for boosters to three months, but unlike Ontario, Premier François Legault said he is not considering opening up third doses to all adults since most hospitalizations involve people over the age of 60.

Elsewhere in Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. also reported new daily highs in cases on Thursday. P.E.I. also announced stricter restrictions on social gatherings.

“There’s a lot of surges worldwide and in Canada,” New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, Jennifer Russell, said. “We expect that here, preemptively, knowing that’s coming, and we hope that people keep their gatherings small.”

New Brunswickers are currently being asked to stick to a steady bubble of 20. Asked why the province is waiting until after Christmas, on Dec. 27, to ask households to stick to a smaller, steady bubble of 10, Russell said Public Health wants to strike a balance between keeping hospitalizations down and protecting people’s mental health.

“If there is an uptick and we start to see a surge in hospitalizations, we can act very quickly,” she said.

From The National

U.K. breaks daily record with 100,000 new cases

The U.K. recorded more than 100,000 daily cases of COVID-19, shattering the country’s single-day record. But while Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will impose new restrictions after Christmas, England hasn’t announced anything similar yet. 2:03

Early British studies suggest Omicron may be milder than Delta

Two new British studies provide some early hints that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus may be milder than the Delta variant.

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 much faster than Delta and is more able to evade vaccines. Sheer numbers of 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 COVID-19 infection.

Still, the new studies released Wednesday seem to bolster earlier research that suggests Omicron may not be as harmful as the Delta variant, 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 at all than those infected with the Delta variant, 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 ages 20-39. Younger people are much less likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19.

Data out of South Africa, where the variant was first detected, have also suggested Omicron might be milder there.

More of the latest COVID-19 science developments

World roundup: China orders 13 million residents into lockdown, England’s COVID-19 prevalence hits new high

China is redoubling efforts to control new virus outbreaks with a lockdown of the 13 million residents of the northern city of Xi’an following a spike in coronavirus cases. The measure comes just weeks before the country hosts the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Xi’an on Thursday reported another 63 locally transmitted cases, pushing the city’s total to at least 211 over the past week. There was no word on whether the virus was the newly surging Omicron variant or the far more common Delta. China has recorded just seven Omicron cases so far.

Authorities have adopted strict pandemic control measures under their policy of seeking to drive new transmissions to zero, leading to frequent lockdowns, universal masking and mass testing. While the policy has not been entirely successful, leading to massive disruptions in travel and trade, Beijing credits it with largely containing spread of the virus.

In Australia, the government reintroduced COVID-19 curbs such as mandated mask wearing indoors, capacity limits and QR code check-ins to cover most of the population on Thursday as daily infections hit a fresh record, fuelled by the Omicron variant.

South Korea set a new record for daily COVID-19 deaths as it struggled to resolve a shortage of hospital beds amid weeks of surging cases. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said Thursday that 109 people died in the latest 24-hour period. The agency also reported 6,919 new coronavirus cases, the vast majority of them involving the Delta variant.

Meanwhile, 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 high as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly, official estimates showed on Thursday.

London was worst hit with an estimated 1 in 30 people infected with the coronavirus last week, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

The U.K. reported 119,789 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the highest yet during the pandemic and the second day the number has topped 100,000.

In the U.S., the country’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, policies that affect large employers and health-care workers. The high court said it will hear arguments in the cases on Jan. 7, an extraordinarily fast timeline.

Today’s graphic:

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Note to our readers: The Coronavirus Brief is taking a break for the holidays and will resume on Jan. 3, 2022.

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