Today’s coronavirus news: Canada confirms first two cases of Omicron variant; Ontario sees highest daily case count in nearly six months – Toronto Star

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Canada’s first COVID-19 Omicron variant cases confirmed
Ontario records 964 COVID-19 cases and one more death
The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Sunday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.
10:45 p.m.: Toronto Public Health dismissed students at an elementary school in the Wychwood neighbourhood from in-person learning and activities due to confirmed COVID-19 cases, Sunday evening.
As advised by TPH, Toronto District School Board will temporarily close McMurrich Junior Public School starting Monday to investigate the COVID-19 cases.
The board’s website shows that the school had reported four cases of COVID-19, one of which has been resolved.
TPH recommended a whole-school dismissal as a precautionary measure to protect staff, students and the community from further spread within the school.
“All students will be moving to remote learning during this time,” said TDSB in a tweet.
8 p.m.: Israel over the weekend became the first country to seal its borders to all foreign travellers in response to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, taking a drastic step that appeared more draconian but less discriminatory than other countries’ travel bans.
Only four weeks ago, Israel fully reopened its skies to vaccinated tourists after it had barred foreign visitors early in the pandemic. But by midnight Sunday, its borders are expected to again be closed to foreigners.
The rapid reversal came after a late-night meeting Saturday of Israel’s coronavirus cabinet and constituted a broader ban than those imposed by most countries so far. The United States, Britain, Canada, the European Union and other nations have all announced bans on travellers from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected.
7:15 p.m.: Health officials in Prince Edward Island are reporting five new cases of COVID-19.
Public health says in a news release the cases involve two people in their 60s, one person in their 50s, and two individuals in their 40s and 30s, respectively.
Officials say four cases are linked to travel off the Island, while the remaining infection is linked to a cluster in Prince County, on the western side of the Island.
The release says health authorities have now linked 28 infections to the Prince County cluster.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison says anyone experiencing a symptom of COVID-19, even if mild, should get tested.
The government says more than 90 per cent of Islanders aged 12 and older were fully vaccinated as of last Wednesday.
7 p.m.: Health officials in New Brunswick are reporting 45 new cases of COVID-19 today, for a total of 130 new infections confirmed over the weekend.
Officials said in a news release there were also 45 recoveries since Saturday, which means the number of active reported cases in the province remains at 793.
Public health says there are 62 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized, including 17 people in intensive care.
Officials say a person younger than 19 is among those in hospital.
Online data shows 88 per cent of New Brunswickers aged 12 and over are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and over 93 per cent have had at least one dose of vaccine.
The release says school personnel and residents aged 65 and older can book an appointment to receive a booster dose if six months have passed since their second dose.
6:43 p.m.: As Canada confirms its first cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, scientists say banning travellers from southern African countries in an effort to curb its importation is wishful thinking that could do more harm than good.
Public health officials in Ontario confirmed the country’s first two cases of the variant in the Ottawa area on Sunday afternoon, noting they were found in people who had recently been in Nigeria. The news comes just days after the federal government announced it was banning travellers from seven southern African nations — Nigeria not among them — in an effort to keep Omicron out of the country.
Caroline Colijn, a mathematician and epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, said it was “wishful thinking” to believe the variant, which was first detected in South Africa, would somehow be contained to the region. She noted cases had begun cropping up in several other countries that weren’t targeted by the heightened restrictions even before the Ontario diagnoses came to light, adding it was only a matter of time before a case was found in Canada.
“I think we need broader measures at the border, and it should apply to all international travel,” Colijn said in an interview Sunday. “We can’t pick these seven countries and say, ‘Okay, for the next three weeks, this is where it’s going to be.’”
What’s more, Colijn said singling out these countries with travel bans could dissuade them from sharing critical research about Omicron or future variants with the rest of the world.
“The South African public health labs are hugely to be commended for sequencing this, finding it, sharing the data … The scientific world will be able to do so much good with that information,” she said. “I really hope we’re not disincentivizing other countries from doing that if they have huge economic consequences because of travel bans.”
Ottawa announced Friday that it was tightening border measures for anyone who’d been to South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia. Foreign nationals who visited any of the seven countries within 14 days of their planned arrival in Canada would no longer be allowed entry, said a release from the federal public health agency.
Canadians returning from these countries will have to quarantine for 14 days and be subject to enhanced screening and testing measures, the release said.
Canada is not alone: The U.S. plans to ban travel from South Africa and several other neighbouring countries beginning Monday, while other jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Israel and the European Union have also restricted or banned travel from the region.
This despite opposition from the World Health Organization, which has warned against overreaction before more is known about the variant.
WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,’’ Moeti said in a statement. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based.”
Moeti praised South Africa for following international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the Omicron variant.
6:25 p.m.: Cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists cautioned that it’s not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.
The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines. But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.
Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread. Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and both Canada and Australia each found two.
Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has limited effect, the World Health Organization called for frontiers to remain open.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, emphasized that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.
“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks therefore of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. … What we don’t know is whether it can compete with delta,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.
“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Collins said.
The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for omicron. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put into isolation, most at a nearby hotel.
Canada’s health minister says the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.
Authorities in Australia said two travelers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travelers over the weekend.
Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.
6 p.m.: After playing professional golf in about a dozen countries this year, all Aaron Cockerill wants to do is get home for the holidays.
But for now, the Canadian will settle on just leaving South Africa.
Cockerill is stuck in Johannesburg and was left scrambling after a chartered plane arranged by the DP World TourDP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) to get golfers to Dubai was left grounded at the last minute.
“Trying every available option,” Cockerill, who is from Winnipeg, told The Star via text from the airport in Johannesburg. “Tough sledding (right now).”
Cockerill was playing the DP World Tour’s Joburg Open when news of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant was deemed “of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO). Scientists have been led to believe the Omicron variant is more transmissible than any previous strain, although tests are ongoing.
A spokesperson for the DP World Tour told The Star it is still holding a charter flight option but are awaiting permission to fly it out of South Africa. This flight, according to Cockerill, will go through Nairobi and London, England within the next few days.
Read the full story here.
4:45 p.m.: Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott released a statement Sunday evening confirming two cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant in Ottawa.
The affected individuals are reported to have travelled from Nigeria and are being isolated to stop the spread.
The variant was first detected in South Africa. After the announcement, many countries including Canada, banned flights from the country.
“The best defence against Omicron variant is stopping it at our border,” reads the statement. “We continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travellers.”
Elliott assured that Ontario is prepared and ready to respond to the new variant. The Ontario COVID-19 Genomic Network is actively monitoring for all potential variants circulating in the province.
“Ontario has the infrastructure in place to manage outbreaks,” Elliott said. “Ontario is prepared and ready to respond to the new variant.”
4:15 p.m.: More than 6,100 five to 11 year olds have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during the first three days of Toronto’s five city-run vaccination clinics.
The Team Toronto Kids COVID-19 vaccination campaign kicked off on Thursday as children aged 5 to 11 became eligible to receive the vaccine.
In a press release Sunday, the City of Toronto says in addition to the 6,134 doses administered at city-run clinics from Thursday to Saturday, more children were also vaccinated through the broader “Team Toronto” network of vaccination clinics including fixed clinics run by hospitals, Ontario Health teams, community health centres and more than 110 primary care providers and pediatricians.
The press release added that, “a full update on all vaccines administered to all residents in this age category will be provided Tuesday.”
Toronto’s chief medical officer, doctor Eileen de Villa, said it is promising to see children stepping up to get vaccinated.
“What an encouraging accomplishment for our city. So many five to 11 year old heroes are stepping up to protect themselves, their loved ones and our entire community against COVID-19,” she said. “Sincere thanks to Team Toronto partners for their continued efforts to protect all of us and to help us end this pandemic.”
Read the full story here from Mariam Nouser
4 p.m.: We’ve heard the names — Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma — all variants of concern when it comes to COVID.
And just days ago, a new variant surfaced in South Africa — B.1.1.529, now called Omicron by the WHO — which is even more transmissible than Delta, which has already crushed its competitors and become dominant in Canada and the rest of the world.
Delta’s transmissibility led to cases doubling in a week in one area of Ontario after provincial restrictions were lifted.
Now cases are also rising in Toronto and there is reason to be concerned.
“In the presence of Delta, for those who are not fully vaccinated yet, there is no escape,” said Dr. Peter Juni, an epidemiologist and scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. One case of the variant leads to seven other infections in the unvaccinated on average, if no public health measures are taken.
“You either get immune through vaccination. That’s the easy way,” said Juni. “Or through infection. That’s the risky way.”
Juni says at least 95 per cent of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity due to Delta’s “impressive” reproduction number pitted against vaccines that are 85 per cent protective.
There is no evidence yet to suggest that the newly discovered Omicron variant is in Canada.
What is known so far though, is that Omicron outcompeted Delta faster than Delta outcompeted Alpha, says Juni.
Star reporter Patty Winsa talks to Juni about breakthrough cases, waning immunity and how to protect each other during the holidays.
Read the full Q&A here: What are the current COVID-19 risks and what’s next? The head of Ontario’s science table answers
3 p.m.: A British Columbia-based researcher says banning travelers from southern African countries in an effort to stop the importation of a new COVID-19 variant is an example of “wishful thinking” that could do more harm than good.
Caroline Colijn, a mathematician and epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, says the omicron variant has already been detected in countries outside of the targeted region and it’s only a matter of time before it’s found in Canada.
She says South Africa is to be commended for sequencing the omicron variant and for sharing its data with the rest of the world.
Colijn says she worries countries such as Canada, that responded by imposing travel bans on southern African nations, risk disincentivizing that kind of transparency in the future.
Zain Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, agrees that “blind closures of borders” don’t make sense.
He says the omicron variant shows it’s time for a more coordinated global response to the COVID-19 pandemic focused on ensuring every person in every country has ample access to vaccines.
11:02 a.m.: Ontario is reporting another 964 COVID-19 cases and one more death, according to its latest report released Sunday morning.
Ontario has administered 33,249 vaccine doses since its last daily update, with 22,928,466 vaccines given in total as of 8 p.m. the previous night.
According to the Star’s vaccine tracker, 11,677,477 people in Ontario have received at least one shot. That works out to approximately 89.6 per cent of the eligible population 12 years and older, and the equivalent of 78.6 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.
The province says 11,250,989 people have completed their vaccinations, which means they’ve had both doses. That works out to approximately 86.3 per cent of the eligible population 12 years and older, and the equivalent of 75.7 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Read more.
10:11 a.m.: Israel on Sunday approved barring entry to foreign nationals and the use of controversial technology for contact tracing as part of its efforts to clamp down on a new coronavirus variant.
The Health Ministry said the country’s coronavirus Cabinet had authorized a raft of measures, including red-listing travel to 50 African countries, banning entry by foreigners and mandating quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.
It also approved use of the Shin Bet internal security agency’s controversial phone monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of individuals confirmed with the new omicron variant of coronavirus in Israel.
Israeli rights groups had decried the use of the technology, which can track where a person has been and whom he has met with, as a violation of privacy rights. The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that its use be limited.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which has led the opposition to the technology, said Sunday that “resuming the program via emergency regulation is a blatant disregard for the rule of law,” and pointed to the court’s ruling that “the tracking had not proven effective in preventing the spread of the virus.”
But the Cabinet went ahead and gave formal approval to the measure, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett signed an emergency regulation putting it into effect.
“It should be emphasized that the use is restricted only to verified cases of the new strain. There will be no widespread and sweeping use for all verified cases as was done in previous waves of morbidity,” Bennett’s office said.
7:54 a.m.: Australian officials confirmed Sunday that two overseas travellers arriving in Sydney had tested positive for the omicron variant of the coronavirus, as nations around the world tightened controls against the worrying new strain.
The two passengers were among a group of 14 others who arrived in Australia from southern Africa on Saturday, They were asymptomatic and were both vaccinated for COVID-19. The remaining 12 have been placed in quarantine.
Neighbouring New Zealand announced it was restricting travel from nine southern African countries because of the threat posed by the variant, and Japan widened its border controls to include more countries from the region.
Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travellers from certain countries, announced a ban of its own on visitors from eight African counties.
7:53 a.m.: Swiss voters were having their say in a referendum Sunday on legislation which imposed the use of a special COVID-19 certificate that lets only people who have been vaccinated, recovered or tested negative attend public events and gatherings.
The vote offers a relatively rare bellwether of public opinion specifically on the issue of government policy to fight the coronavirus in Europe, currently the global epicentre of the pandemic.
The vote on the country’s “COVID-19 law,” which also has unlocked billions of Swiss francs in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic, comes as Switzerland — like many other nations in Europe — faces a steep rise in coronavirus cases.
The Swiss federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictions. Analysts say it doesn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-COVID-19 policies before they face Sunday’s test at the ballot box. If the Swiss give a thumbs-up, however, the government may well ratchet up its anti-COVID efforts.
Polls suggest a solid majority of Swiss will approve the measure, which is already in effect and the rejection of which would end the restrictions — as well as the payouts. But in recent weeks, opponents have raised heaps of cash for their campaign and drawn support from abroad.
Sunday 7:52 a.m.: Israel on Sunday approved barring entry to foreign nationals and the use of controversial technology for contact tracing as part of its efforts to clamp down on a new coronavirus variant.
The Health Ministry said in a statement that the country’s coronavirus cabinet had authorized a raft of measures, including red-listing travel to 50 African countries, banning entry by foreigners and mandating quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.
It also approved use of the Shin Bet internal security agency’s controversial phone monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of individuals confirmed with the new omicron variant of coronavirus in Israel.
Read Saturday’s coronavirus news.

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