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Today’s coronavirus news: Omicron keeps Liberals’ fiscal update focused on the pandemic; Pfizer’s experimental pill appears effective against Omicron

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

5:12 p.m. Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says all her Progressive Conservative caucus members have complied with a requirement to get COVID-19 vaccines.

Earlier this month, Stefanson said any Tory not fully immunized by Dec. 15 — when new vaccine requirements take effect at the legislature — would be removed from caucus.

Her statement at the time mentioned Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler, who has been the only Tory to refuse to reveal his vaccination status. Schuler has been noticeably absent at some events where vaccines were required, such as the party’s recent leadership convention. He has taken part in legislature debates remotely.

5:09 p.m. Western University has announced in-person exams will move online.

Exams scheduled Dec. 17 to 22 will move online, except for practical and clinical assessments that may have to be completed in person. Exams scheduled Dec. 15 and 16 will continue in person unless notified by faculty.

5:06 p.m. With COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations on the rise across Quebec, the provincial government on Tuesday recommended employers prioritize remote work and pledged to issue free rapid tests to the public next week.

The recommendation for remote work is effective immediately, Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters. He said the government was also looking to find volunteers to help it ramp up its booster-dose vaccination program, but in the meantime, he added, Quebecers need to reduce their contacts.

“With the rising cases and the potential of Omicron, we want to accelerate booster vaccinations,” Dubé said about the new variant of the novel coronavirus, of which only 11 cases have so far been confirmed in the province. “But we need more vaccinators. We’re asking employers as of today to favour (remote work) until further notice to minimize contacts at work.”

4:48 p.m. British Columbia has detected 44 cases of the fast-spreading COVID-19 variant Omicron, with more than half of the cases identified in the Fraser Health region.

The cases are included in new infection modelling released today that also shows overall COVID-19 cases rising on Vancouver Island, driven by outbreaks at the University of Victoria and a religious gathering in the northern part of the island.

Data from November and December across B.C. show that unvaccinated people are seven times more likely than those with two doses of a vaccine to contract COVID-19.

4:15 p.m. The Liberal government’s economic update Tuesday swung between painting a rosy picture of an economy on the rebound and a gloomy portrait of uncertainty ahead thanks to the newest COVID-19 variant whipping around the globe.

Federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland found herself personally walking that line as she presented the Liberal government’s fall financial statement virtually, after two of her staffers tested positive on a rapid test, and she decided to cancel in-person public appearances.

“With all the spending here … with all of the exhortations I am making to Canadians to please get your boosters, use your rapid tests, the right thing for me to do was to behave with an abundance of caution,” she told reporters ahead of presenting the update in the House of Commons Friday.

Read the full story here.

4:07 p.m. A government source says Ontario Premier Doug Ford will make an announcement Wednesday about COVID-19 booster doses.

The news comes as the province’s top doctor says he will recommend Ford’s government take provincewide measures to combat the rapidly spreading Omicron COVID-19 variant.

Dr. Kieran Moore says the regional approach to public health restrictions was designed with the Delta variant in mind and Omicron poses a different threat.

3:18 p.m. Hospital admissions in Ontario are up 13 per cent in the last week, says Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, in an update Tuesday.

Moore noted each Omicron case infects 4 to 8 times more people than the Delta variant. Omicron “is spreading among fully vaccinated individuals,” he said.

Even if it is less severe, Omicron can still be a problem for the health care system if it infects large numbers of people, Moore said. He urged people to get vaccinated and recieve booster shots.

3:04 p.m. McMaster University will resume classes after the holidays on Jan. 10, but they will be online for that first week. Effective immediately, staff are being urged to work from home when possible until Jan. 17, and all in-person meetings and gatherings have been cancelled.

The University of Waterloo is cancelling all non-essential in person end-of-year gatherings and meetings on campus. It’s also urging the cancellation of work-related end-of-year gatherings off-campus. It is requesting staff work from home when possible.

2:50 p.m. Two members of finance minister Chrystia Freeland’s staff tested positive for COVID-19 after taking rapid antigen tests “as a precaution,” Freeland said over Twitter Tuesday.

Freeland didn’t have direct contact with the staff members, who are now isolating at home, she said. The rest of Freeland’s staff and Freeland herself tested negative for the virus.

Despite her two negative molecular tests, Freeland will be presenting the economic and fiscal update virtually on Tuesday “out of an abundance of caution,” she said.

2:29 p.m. Ontario is adding more COVID-19 testing in long-term care homes and Quebec will accelerate the administration of third doses of vaccine, as both provinces reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 infections Tuesday.

Ontario’s Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said his province will also tighten restrictions on visitors and on resident activities due to concerns about the Omicron variant.

Only fully vaccinated people will be allowed to visit indoors — with limited exceptions and a grace period for caregivers to get their shots — and group activities for residents will be discouraged.

2:20 p.m. Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says the province is looking at making rapid COVID-19 tests widely available, perhaps for free.

Stefanson says she has asked public health officials to look at changing the current rules, which focus mainly on selling rapid test kits to businesses and other employers.

In Nova Scotia, residents are able to get free rapid tests from pop-up locations across the province for at-home testing.

2 p.m. The Dutch government on Tuesday ordered elementary schools to close a week early for Christmas holidays as authorities battle to rein in coronavirus infections amid concerns about the swift spread of the new omicron variant.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte also extended the country’s existing lockdown until Jan. 14, saying the government has to be alert for the new variant.

“That is of course not the good news you hope for at Christmas time,” Rutte said in a nationally televised news conference. “So yes, a disappointing but perhaps not very big surprise.”

Rutte said school holidays will be extended from two weeks to three, starting Dec. 20. Young children registered the steepest rises in infections in a recent coronavirus surge in the Netherlands

1:53 p.m. The Brockville jail closed Tuesday due to a COVID-19 outbreak, with all inmates being transferred to another jail in Lindsay, Ont., according to a memo from the jail’s superintendent sent out Monday afternoon.

The closure of the small jail — it has a capacity of around 44 inmates — comes as cases are spiking in Ontario jails including the Niagara Detention Centre, the Maplehurst Correctional Centre and the Southwest Detention Centre. At least six outbreaks have been declared since November after a lull over the summer — following a similar pattern to last year’s second wave and reflecting the rising case counts in surrounding communities.

Read the full story from the Star’s Alyshah Hasham

1:45 p.m. Prince Edward Island today joined New Brunswick in linking the emergence of the Omicron variant to the COVID-19 outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University that has spread through the region.

Dr. Heather Morrison, the province’s chief public health officer, says there is at least one confirmed Omicron case on the Island connected to the cluster at the Antigonish, N.S., university.

The public health official told a briefing the Island will not be able to avoid the variant’s further spread, adding it feels like the province is “bracing for another hurricane.”

1:35 p.m. Ontario’s Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips is tightening the rules at nursing homes, with increased COVID-19 testing and some new restrictions that include a ban on residents leaving for overnight visits — which could impact holiday season plans for some.

“The reality is there are some communities where vaccination levels are lower and with the uncertainty from the Omicron variant you just have to be careful,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

As previously reported by the Star, only the fully vaccinated are permitted to visit loved ones, with exceptions for palliative care and those with legitimate medical exemptions. They will be restricted to the resident’s room.

Read the full story from the Star’s Rob Ferguson

1 p.m. Nigeria will no longer accept COVID-19 vaccines with short shelf lives after 1 million doses have expired in Africa’s most population nation before the shots could be used, a government official said.

While some of the doses given to Nigeria were within a few months of expiring, authorities have said that other donated vaccines had just weeks left to be given to people before becoming unusable.

Faisal Shuaib, head of Nigeria’s National Primary Health Care Development Agency, told reporters that expired vaccines not used in time now will be destroyed. He did not specify what Nigerian officials would consider to be too short of a shelf life.

12:30 p.m. Three more Calgary Flames have entered the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.

The Flames confirmed in a short statement on social media Tuesday that defenceman Noah Hanifin and forwards Milan Lucic and Sean Monahan have joined six other players and a staff member in the league’s protocol.

“Our team is 100 per cent vaccinated and some like myself also have a booster,” Lucic wrote Tuesday in a Twitter post.

“Looking forward to being back on the ice soon!”

Forwards Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane, Brad Richardson and Adam Ruzicka and defencemen Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov entered protocol Monday.

12 p.m. Quebec is reporting 1,747 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and seven more deaths attributed to the coronavirus.

COVID-19-related hospitalizations jumped by 25 patients compared with the prior day, to 293, after 47 people entered hospital and 22 were discharged.

The number of intensive care patients rose by two, to 75.

About 88 per cent of Quebecers aged five and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 81 per cent have received at least two doses. About five per cent of that age group has received a booster dose.

The province’s public health institute has identified three more cases of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in Quebec to 11.

10:45 a.m. Some people working at the Durham Region courthouse in Oshawa were instructed to self-isolate after confirmation that a person who attended a social function approved by management had tested positive for COVID-19.

The person, who tested positive after a Dec. 3 gathering outside of the courthouse, was informed on Dec. 10 they may have contracted the Omicron variant of the virus, according to a letter signed by Durham Crown Attorney Greg O’Driscoll.

The development resulted in a number of workers being ordered to isolate and the Crown’s office was considering postponing some in-person court appearances Monday, Dec. 13, the final day of the isolation period, the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General confirmed.

10:03 a.m. (updated) Ontario has administered 99,397 vaccine doses since its last daily update, with 24,584,089 vaccines given in total as of 8 p.m. the previous night.

According to the Star’s vaccine tracker, 12,019,901 people in Ontario have received at least one shot. That works out to approximately 85.8 per cent of the eligible population five years and older and the equivalent of 80.9 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The province says 11,334,812 people have completed their vaccinations, which means they’ve had both doses. That works out to approximately 80.9 per cent of the eligible population five years and older, and the equivalent of 76.3 per cent of the total population, including those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Read the full story from the Star’s Urbi Khan

9:30 a.m. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling for thousands of volunteers to staff new vaccination centers in shopping areas, stadiums and racecourses as the government accelerates its booster program to combat the omicron variant of COVID-19.

The drive comes two days after Johnson set a target of giving booster shots to all adults by the end of this year to stem the tide of omicron. U.K. health authorities say the number of omicron infections is doubling every two to three days, and the variant is now responsible for about 200,000 new cases a day.

“We need tens of thousands of people to help out — everyone from trained vaccinators to stewards,” Johnson said. “Many thousands have already given their time — but we need you to come forward again, to work alongside our brilliant GPs, doctors, nurses and pharmacists, to deliver jabs and save lives.”

8:45 a.m. An unvaccinated Greek commentator and publisher died of respiratory failure and resulting complications from COVID-19 on Tuesday, focusing public attention on the large number of older people in Greece who still haven’t received their shots as the country struggles with a spike in infections and deaths.

Giorgos Trangas, 71, who had diabetes, died at a state hospital in Athens after being admitted on Dec. 4 with severe breathing difficulties. He was unvaccinated, and had recently formed a small political party, “Free People,” that was critical of vaccine mandates and lockdown measures.

With a quarter of the adult population unvaccinated, Greece is suffering a third major surge of infections this winter with the COVID-19 death rate just below peak levels recorded a year ago.

8:30 a.m. Italian women are having dramatically fewer babies than ever during the pandemic, accentuating one of the world’s lowest birth rates, the Italian statistics agency ISTAT said Tuesday.

The month of January 2021, 10 months after Italy’s draconian lockdown, marked the lowest birth rate ever — a 13.6 per cent decline over the same month a year earlier, translating to nearly 5,000 fewer births.

ISTAT said after significant drops also in November and December 2020 there was “little doubt about the role of the pandemic” and that the trend appeared to be lasting.

8:10 a.m. Ontario’s top doctor is expected to provide an additional update on COVID-19 in the province Tuesday.

Dr. Kieran Moore is holding a news conference at 3 p.m. The briefing comes as more local public health units are imposing stricter health measures or issuing additional guidance to residents in light of the fast-spreading Omicron variant

Peterborough is the latest region to instruct workplaces to have all non-essential staff to work from home if possible, as part of new measures set to take effect on Wednesday.

The new rules also require restaurants to ensure tables are at least two metres apart or separated by a barrier, and to set a cap on the number of patrons at each table.

Meanwhile, Ottawa Public Health is warning of a backlog in its contact-tracing system due to a surge in Omicron cases, and urging residents who test positive for COVID-19 to immediately self-isolate and alert their close contacts themselves.

The province’s panel of expert advisers on COVID-19 estimated Monday that Omicron makes up 30 per cent of new daily infections, with cases doubling every three days.

8 a.m. U.K. government advisers could make a recommendation within days on whether the nation should roll out COVID-19 vaccines to young children.

Once the vaccines are cleared by the U.K. drugs regulator for use in 5-to-11-year-olds, the government’s vaccine advisory panel — the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation — will provide an opinion on whether they should be offered to that age group, JCVI Chair Wei Shen Lim told U.K. lawmakers Tuesday.

“We are discussing that at the moment,” he said at a parliamentary committee hearing on the coronavirus and the omicron variant. “We are also waiting for the vaccines to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.”

He added the group tries to “keep in step with the approval process” and expects to make a recommendation to the government before Christmas.

7:35 a.m. Poland’s Health ministry said Tuesday that a Polish teenager who flew from Warsaw to China last week is continental China’s first person to test positive for the omicron variant of COVID-19.

Ministry spokesman Wojciech Andrusiewicz said the teenager, who traveled with her mother, was hospitalized in isolation. She shows no symptoms of illness.

Andrusiewicz said she tested negative before leaving Warsaw Dec. 6, but a test after arrival in China showed infection with the omicron, which was confirmed by a second test, Dec.13.

According to China’s “Global Times” newspaper, the teenager is in Tianjin.

7:25 a.m. The African continent might not reach the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of its 1.3 billion population against COVID-19 until the second half of 2024, a target many of the world’s richer countries have already met, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

The warning comes as the world faces a new surge in cases driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant. Health officials in South Africa, which first announced the variant, say early data indicate it causes less severe illness and shorter, less intensive hospital stays. But some richer countries have rushed to allow booster vaccine doses in response, even as less than 8 per cent of Africa’s population has received two doses.

“We will never get out of this if we don’t work together as one world,” Flavia Senkubuge, president of the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa, told reporters at the WHO briefing.

6:55 a.m. Pfizer said Tuesday that its experimental COVID-19 pill appears effective against the Omicron variant.

The company also said full results of its 2,250-person study confirmed the pill’s promising early results against the virus: The drug reduced combined hospitalizations and deaths by about 89% among high-risk adults when taken shortly after initial COVID-19 symptoms.

Separate laboratory testing shows the drug retains its potency against the omicron variant, the company announced, as many experts had predicted. Pfizer tested the antiviral drug against a man-made version of a key protein that omicron uses to reproduce itself.

The updates come as COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalization are all rising again and the U.S. hovers around 800,000 pandemic deaths. The latest surge, driven by the Delta variant, is accelerating due to colder weather and more indoor gatherings, even as health officials brace for the impact of the emerging Omicron mutant.

6:20 a.m. China has detected its second case of the Omicron variant in a 67-year-old man who tested positive after more than two weeks of quarantine, official media reported Tuesday.

State broadcaster CCTV said the man returned from overseas on Nov. 27 and underwent two weeks of isolation, during which he repeatedly tested negative for the virus.

On Saturday, he flew to the southern city of Guangzhou where he maintains a residence and began another week of self-quarantining at home.

A day later he underwent a routine test and early on Monday, the district health department informed authorities he had tested positive for the virus, the station reported.

6:15 a.m.: A two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccination provides just 33% protection against infection by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, but 70% protection against hospitalization, according to a large-scale analysis in South Africa released Tuesday.

The first large-scale analysis of vaccine effectiveness in the region where the new variant was discovered appears to support early indications that Omicron is more easily transmissible and that the Pfizer shot isn’t as effective in protecting against infection as it was against the Delta variant.

The analysis was based on more than 211,000 positive COVID-19 test results, 41% from adults who had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. About 78,000 of these positive COVID-19 test results between Nov. 15 and Dec. 7 were attributed to Omicron infections. The study was carried out by Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest private health insurer, and the South African Medical Research Council.

5:30 a.m. The federal fiscal update contains more than $1.5 billion to buy rapid tests right away, the Star has learned.

The money will go toward buying the tests directly and also helping provinces with the logistics of distributing them, a federal source said on condition of anonymity.

It’s one of the few new spending items that will be included in Tuesday’s fiscal update, which will focus mainly on bringing the books up to date after last spring’s budget.

The goal is to respond to growing requests from provinces to make more use of rapid tests to quickly detect the new Omicron variant, which is highly contagious.

Read the exclusive report from the Star’s Heather Scoffield.

5:15 a.m. Two out of three ain’t bad — unless your office has a mandatory COVID vaccine policy.

As the COVID vaccine booster rollout widens, labour law experts say workplace mandates will eventually include a third shot.

“Once the boosters become widely available, every company which has a vaccine mandate will add the booster,” said Howard Levitt, senior partner at Levitt Sheikh LLP, a law firm specializing in labour and employment law.

On Monday, Ontario began accepting bookings for COVID booster shots for anyone 50 and over who got their second shot at least 168 days earlier. In early January, bookings will be extended to include people 18 and over. The widening availability of booster shots come as Ontario faces rapidly-rising COVID case counts, and a growing threat from the Omicron variant.

Read more from the Star’s Josh Rubin.

5:05 a.m. Sara Fung was overcome with emotion when the first COVID-19 vaccines started pouring into Canada last December, and again in March when she received her first dose.

As she felt the prick of the needle on her arm, the Hamilton-area nurse thought of the grandmother she lost to COVID-19 nearly a year earlier.

Pandemic restrictions kept Fung from properly grieving her grandmother’s death when the “glue of the family” died in a Toronto long-term care home in April 2020. Although the matriarch was 100 years old, Fung says she was healthy and lively, and likely to survive another couple of years.

“I remember feeling so fortunate (when getting the vaccine). Really, it was a tribute to my grandmother,” Fung said, pausing to hold back tears during a virtual interview. “I was thinking: ‘if this had been available to her, I have no doubt she’d still be alive today.'”

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 vaccines administered in Canada, a milestone that offered hope for a new year after a dismal 2020.

Read more from The Canadian Press.

5 a.m. As Ontario braces for a tidal wave of Omicron cases, the Kingston area is already struggling to contain the new variant of concern that has flamed through the city, forcing the region to enact new public health restrictions now among the toughest in the province.

On Monday, Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health restricted gatherings to just five people for the next week to curb the spread of COVID-19 as the region’s hospitals — now caring for the highest number of coronavirus patients in Ontario — warned of limited capacity.

Cases of the Omicron variant in the region — with among the lowest case counts in the first three waves of the pandemic, and a high proportion of its population vaccinated — are soaring in young adults, pushing up already-high infection rates from a Delta-fuelled fourth wave that rolled in last month.

Read more from the Star’s Megan Ogilvie and May Warren.

4:45 a.m. Ontario will unveil new restrictions to protect nursing home residents from COVID-19 and is working to begin offering boosters for those 18 and over sooner than Jan. 4 as the Omicron variant spreads more rapidly than predicted just days ago.

The measures coming Tuesday include requiring all nursing home visitors be vaccinated and setting a limit of two visitors, government sources said.

“Visitors need to be at least double vaccinated because seniors are more vulnerable,” said Lisa Levin of AdvantAge Ontario, representing not-for-profit homes.

“Things have changed.”

Homes have been testing visitors but that is not enough, Levin said, raising concerns about how many nursing home workers have boosters and what could happen to care levels for frail and elderly residents if too many staff contract the virus.

Read more from Rob Ferguson.

4:30 a.m. A person who was on Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s flightback from the United Arab Emirates has tested positive for COVID-19, the prime minister’s office said Tuesday.

Bennett returned to Israel on Monday from a historic two-day trip to the Gulf Arab state, the first by an Israeli leader to the country, which recently normalized ties with Israel.

He was in a three-day quarantine on Tuesday as per Health Ministry regulations, which require all returning travelers, even those vaccinated, to self-isolate. He was expected to take a coronavirus test on Wednesday, also in line with health regulations, and then end his quarantine if he tests negative, the prime minister’s office said.

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