By Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press
More provinces reduced isolation requirements for people who test positive for COVID-19 Friday in an effort to lessen staffing shortages as the Omicron variant continued to drive diagnoses at record rates.
Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta and New Brunswick became the latest provinces to reduce to five the number of days that people with two doses of vaccine must isolate if they get the virus.
“With rapid increasing in numbers, we’re facing some challenges,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s chief medical officer.
“The illness that we’re seeing, particularly in health-care workers, is starting to have impacts on our health-care system and our long-term care system.”
Those who are still symptomatic after five days must continue to isolate until they feel better, and those who become asymptomatic have to wear a mask around others for an extra five days — rules also brought into force by Alberta on Friday.
Early research suggests the Omicron variant causes less severe outcomes than previous strains. But experts say the sheer number of cases — caused by Omicron’s high transmissibility — threaten to overrun the health-care system both because more people will be hospitalized and more health workers will be infected.
New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said her province is also experiencing staffing shortages in the health system due to Omicron.
“We expect the situation will become even more challenging as we live through this latest wave of COVID-19,” she said.
During the same news conference, Premier Blaine Higgs announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 using a rapid test and was waiting for confirmation via a more accurate PCR test. He said he was experiencing only mild symptoms.
New Brunswick reported a record 682 cases of COVID-19 on Friday. Due to the influx of new infections, the province announced it will limit access to its PCR tests starting Tuesday to only those considered at the highest risk of the virus, including people who live in congregate care settings and members of the general public who are 50 years old or older — Higgs included.
New Brunswick is also pushing back the resumption of in-person learning by 11 days, with students to learn virtually until Jan. 21.
Meanwhile, Quebec’s curfew and ban on private gatherings go into effect Friday, just in time to prohibit parties on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s an extreme action to take because the situation is extreme,” Quebec Premier François Legault said in announcing the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew Thursday.
He said that when the rate of transmission in the province is under control, the curfew will be the first health order the government removes.
Quebec reported 16,461 new cases of the virus — a record high — and 13 deaths on Friday.
Both Quebec and Ontario said they had more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients in hospital. The former had upwards of 200 people in intensive care units with the virus, while the latter reported 151.
Ontario also reported an all-time high case count. The 16,713 diagnoses surpassed the previous record of 13,807, which was set a day earlier.
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario said it would be enforcing public health guidelines on New Year’s Eve to ensure 50-per-cent capacity limits were being followed and food-and-drink establishments closed by 11 p.m.
“As the countdown to New Year’s Eve approaches, anyone considering heading out to a bar or a restaurant should be aware of all public health measures in place, and not give establishment staff a difficult time for enforcing them,” commission CEO Tom Mungham said in a statement.
Ontario and Saskatchewan — which reported a record 735 new cases Friday — both announced Thursday they were reducing the isolation period to five days.
The announcements followed a decision Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cut isolation in the same manner.
Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba also reported record-high case counts on Friday — 175 and 1,400 respectively.