A look at the latest COVID-19 news in Canada:
— Canada has recorded its 30,000th COVID-19 death since the pandemic began in early 2020, passing the grim milestone just as the country braces for the potential fallout of surging infections driven by the Omicron variant. Ontario reported nine more COVID-19 deaths Thursday morning, pushing Canada's total just over 30,000 as Ottawa and some provinces tightened public health measures to stave threats posed by a more transmissible virus. It took Canada nine months to reach 10,000 COVID-19 deaths last November, but the toll doubled to 20,000 just two months later in January 2021 — a leap that occurred before enough vaccines had been administered to have an affect. The country surpassed 25,000 COVID-19 deaths in May.
— Ontarians took to malls and other pop-up sites Thursday in a scramble to secure free rapid antigen test kits after the provincial government launched its holiday testing blitz. The mad dash of people flocking to pop-up locations in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area was reminiscent of the early-pandemic hunt for toilet paper. This time, however, the search was on for the kits, which, until this week, were largely not accessible for free outside of some workplaces and schools.
— The Senate gave quick approval Thursday to a new round of pandemic aid after Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland made a pre-Christmas plea to rubberstamp the help and promised that benefits would flow quickly to businesses and workers in need. Bill C-2 would provide targeted aid to businesses that have been ordered closed, and workers sent home, as part of a local lockdown, as well as wage and rent subsidies to those still recovering. Freeland told senators the government created the measures in case there was another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and argued they were needed even more with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
— The Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers played in an empty Bell Centre on Thursday night. The Canadiens announced about two hours before puck drop that Quebec public health officials had requested that no fans attend the game due to the "spiralling rise of COVID-19 cases in the region." The team said in a statement it accepted the request "in order to help ensure the safety and security of our fans and fellow citizens." The Canadiens added there would be an update on the status of Saturday's game against the Boston Bruins, who currently have six players in COVID-19 protocol, including captain Patrice Bergeron and star winger Brad Marchand.
— MLSE announced Thursday it will prioritize Leafs and Raptors season ticket holders through mid-January at Scotiabank Arena following Ontario's move to cut capacity to 50 per cent in response to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Season ticket holders make up about 85 per cent of seats at Leafs games, and roughly 70 per cent for the Raptors. MLSE has decided all holders of non-season seats will be refunded for NHL and NBA games scheduled at the venue over the next month. The same goes for non-season tickets purchased for individual games on the secondary ticket market.
— Ontario must introduce stronger public health measures to blunt Omicron's impact, which could soon cause 10,000 cases per day in “the hardest wave of the pandemic,” the province's COVID-19 experts say. Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province's science table, said the highly contagious variant is already dominant in Ontario and an accelerated booster campaign doesn't go far enough to keep the hospital system from becoming overwhelmed. The province needs to implement "circuit breaker" measures that cut people's contacts in half, Brown said.
— COVID-19 vaccination is no longer enough to prevent Quebec's health system from becoming overwhelmed, and Quebecers must reduce their contacts by half, Premier François Legault said. Hours after new modelling indicated hospitals could reach dedicated COVID-19 capacity within weeks, Legault announced a series of added restrictions. Starting Monday, all bars, restaurants, retail stores and entertainment venues will be required to operate at 50 per cent capacity. Churches and other faith venues will also be forced to operate at half capacity, and worshippers will be required to show proof of vaccination. Work parties will be banned, as will dancing and karaoke inside bars, clubs and restaurants. The premier also reversed a decision to ease indoor private gathering limits ahead of the holidays, keeping the maximum at 10 people instead of raising it to 20 on Dec. 23.
— Some travellers heading out of Canada say they're worried about surging COVID-19 cases, but are forging ahead with their plans despite the federal government warning against non-essential international travel. Sanjay Mahar says he is heading to India from Toronto to see his family for the first time in years, having booked the trip a few months ago when case counts were low and vaccination rates high. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged Canadians to avoid international travel as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused cases to spike in recent days. Mahar says he was upset at the advisory and says it was so last-minute for him that he decided to go see his family anyway, especially his father, whose health is poor. He briefly looked into cancelling his trip, but said it was unclear if he'd be able to get any of his money back.
— Saskatchewan is opening up COVID-19 booster shots to more of its population as concerns over the transmissibility of the Omicron variant grows. Premier Scott Moe says all eligible residents over the age of 18 can get their third dose starting Monday. The province has also reduced the time between the second and third doses to three months from five months.
— British Columbia's COVID-19 cases are climbing with 753 new infections and three more deaths reported Thursday. The Health Ministry says in a news release there are now 135 cases of the contagious Omicron variant, a steep rise from the 44 confirmed as of Sunday. There are 3,878 active cases of COVID-19, with 184 in hospital including 70 people in intensive care.
— As Ontario prepares to introduce new COVID-19 capacity limits at large indoor venues, one Canadian arts leader hopes the province might entertain a different idea: temporarily stopping food and beverage sales at all live events. Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory, is asking provincial leaders to consider ways to keep capacity at its current levels, rather than introducing rules that would directly erode ticket sales.
— Business groups in Atlantic Canada are calling for a restart of provincial aid programs, as restaurants, retailers and other small operators lose Christmas sales due to the latest COVID-19 restrictions. Sue Uteck, executive director of the Halifax-based Spring Garden Area Business Association, says the new restaurant restrictions requiring two metres of distance between tables led immediately to cancellations. Meanwhile, Uteck — whose group represents about 230 businesses — says general public anxiety generated by the Omicron variant is keeping Halifax shoppers and diners at home. Louis-Philippe Gauthier, a regional spokesman for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says the provincial grants of about $5,000 offered to businesses in the region earlier in the pandemic won't be enough this time to sustain losses during the holiday season.
— The Calgary Flames say two more players and another member of the team's support staff were added to the NHL's COVID-19 protocol Thursday, bringing the organization's total number to 30 people. Flames centre Dillon Dube and defenceman Oliver Kylington joined 16 of their teammates in protocol, while 12 other employees are also currently in isolation. By far the worst coronavirus outbreak in the NHL this season, Calgary has already seen four games postponed through Saturday, but it's likely more will be scratched with almost the entire roster sidelined.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2021.
The Canadian Press