The latest on the coronavirus outbreak for Dec. 10

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People wait for coronavirus testing at a public health centre in Seoul on Thursday. New coronavirus infections in South Korea have broken records and remained high on Friday. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

COVID-19 infections are on the rise and omicron could supercharge daily case counts, federal modelling says

New modelling released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggests the number of COVID-19 cases could increase sharply in the coming weeks as the country grapples with another wave of delta infections and the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Pointing to early findings from South Africa, where omicron was first identified and case counts have skyrocketed, PHAC said Friday that cases could quadruple to 12,000 a day in January if “omicron successfully establishes” and the current levels of transmission are maintained. Separately, United Kingdom health officials released data Friday indicating omicron could rather quickly overtake delta.

Even without omicron gaining a strong foothold here, and if current levels of transmission are maintained, delta-driven cases could double to between 6,000 and 7,000 a day in January based on federal health projections. If transmission levels increase, a delta-driven wave of roughly 12,000 cases a day is also possible, PHAC said.

In the more immediate future, it is projected that Canada will see another 440 COVID-related deaths by Dec. 19, bringing the overall fatality total quite close to the 30,000 mark.

The current case trendline is already pointing up in a number of Canadian jurisdictions. Ontario reported 1,453 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the most in more than six months, with a 4.4 per cent positivity rate the highest one-day rate since May 26.

Cases in Ontario are on pace to double roughly every three weeks and the province is introducing stronger proof-of-vaccination measures.

Quebec reported 2,013 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, with cases rising there 29 per cent compared to last week, according to INESSS, a government health-care research institute known by its French acronym. (See the graph further down in this newsletter for the extent Ontario and Quebec are pacing the national case increase).

As well, New Brunswick reported a pandemic high in Thursday in terms of daily new cases.

“We should all respect the virus,” Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said at Friday’s briefing. “It’s a formidable foe and it’s obviously evolving as we fight against it.

“We need to respect it but not be panicked or scared. We have a great number of tools now and we know a lot more about the virus. We know vaccines protect against serious illness.”

Federal modelling suggests hospital capacity can be kept at manageable levels if booster shots are widely available and Canadian kids get their shots. If the booster shot campaign or the rollout of vaccinations for kids five to 11 slows down, it’s likely the country’s hospitals will be overrun in the new year, PHAC said.

So far, delta is not overwhelming hospitals in most provinces, although health-care workers are bearing the brunt as the pandemic approaches its second year and many Canadians wait longer for surgical procedures.

The burden of COVID-19 on intensive care units has stayed relatively stable in Ontario. As of Thursday, there were 151 COVID patients in critical care, down from 155 the day before and 17 fewer than the fourth-wave peak of 168 reached earlier this week.

Quebec has 256 people in hospital and 62 in intensive care, numbers largely unchanged from the previous day. Projections from provincial officials Thursday indicated that hospitalizations are down 81 per cent.

In New Brunswick, 40 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, including 16 in intensive care.

“Nobody’s comfortable with high numbers of cases, but certainly if they don’t translate into the same number of hospitalizations in terms of the pressure on our health-care system, then we can tolerate those numbers,” N.B. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell told CBC’s Information Morning Fredericton on Friday.

The colder weather, with more people gathering indoors, is seen as a contributing factor for the case rise, a situation also playing out in some U.S. states in the northeast and midwest.

The state of affairs has seen some public health officials in Canadian border communities advise against jaunts into the U.S., including in Thunder Bay, Ont. Most American states lag the vaccination protection rates seen in Canada by a considerable degree.

“They’re at least 10 times [higher in Minnesota than] our rates here,” Dr. Janet DeMille, Thunder Bay’s medical officer of health, told CBC News.

From The National

Growing COVID-19 outbreak linked to ceremony at St. Francis Xavier University

A COVID-19 outbreak in Nova Scotia linked to St. Francis Xavier University’s annual ring ceremony has grown to roughly 60 people, including some in Ontario and P.E.I. 2:04

In scathing report, auditor general says feds failed to protect foreign farm workers from the pandemic

Federal Auditor General Karen Hogan tabled four reports Thursday afternoon in the House of Commons looking at COVID-19 measures. This newsletter on Thursday looked at the assessment of the federal government’s performance in mitigating transmission for incoming travellers and at the border; today a look at the report entitled Health and Safety of Agricultural Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

As documented on CBC’s The Fifth Estate and in this longform piece about Quebec farms from CBC Montreal, there were large outbreaks on some farms in the early days of the pandemic. At least three foreign farm workers have died from COVID-19, the AG found.

While not unique to Canada, foreign farm workers who come on a seasonal basis to fill labour shortages in the agricultural sector are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19 because they often live in tight quarters in shared employer-provided accommodations.

In one particularly troubling case cited by the auditor general, it took a week for an Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) inspector to first make contact with an employer after they reported an outbreak.

The auditor’s report says that during an interview with the inspector, the employer said they weren’t offering separate accommodations for workers who tested positive — both infected and non-infected workers were also sharing a bathroom and a kitchen. After learning of this serious breach, the ESDC investigator “did not follow up on corrective measures for more than one month,” the AG found.

Syed Hussan, executive director of the advocacy group Migrant Workers for Change, said the AG’s report is “deeply, deeply concerning” but not all that surprising, given past history.

“The auditor general is saying what we already know — inspections cannot and will not protect migrant farm workers,” Hussan said in an interview. “ESDC was not created to protect migrant farm workers. It was created to ensure a steady supply of cheap labour.”

To address the gaps that were making workers sick, the federal government in July 2020 earmarked $16.2 million in new funding to ramp up ESDC’s agricultural inspections. The AG found the new money did little to improve the quality of their work.

“Once again, this Liberal government has been caught saying the right things to reassure Canadians, but failing to take action,” said Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie, that party’s employment critic.

Read the full story

Today’s graphic:

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