Two cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been identified in Ottawa, Ontario health officials confirmed Sunday.
Both patients had recently travelled from Nigeria, Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said in a statement released Sunday afternoon.
They are the first Canadian cases of the variant since Omicron, as it has been dubbed, was declared a COVID-19 variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Friday. Canada joins a growing list of countries around the world that have since confirmed cases of the variant first identified in South Africa.
The news of the Omicron cases came on the same day Ontario reported 964 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death as the province appears to be moving toward a four-figure daily case count — something not seen since last spring’s deadly third wave.
Throughout Ontario, 122 people are in hospital due to COVID-19 and 135 are in intensive care. A total of 617,015 cases have been detected since the pandemic began, as well as 9,994 related deaths.
In Ottawa, 61 new cases were reported, part of a steady upward climb in the city as well.
Concerns about Omicron — including how quickly it is spreading and whether it might evade immunity from vaccines — have put the world on alert.
Both Ottawa patients who tested positive for the variant are in isolation and Ottawa Public Health is conducting case and contact tracing. No further details were immediately available about their conditions or how quickly they were tested after returning to Ottawa.
Late Sunday, OPH advised anyone who had been to Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini or Namibia within 14 days before arriving in Ottawa to immediately isolate, including from other family members, and to get tested, along with members of their households.
The advice was being given “to reduce the transmission of the Omicron variant and out of an abundance of caution,” Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said in the statement.
Moore was scheduled to hold a media briefing Monday morning.
He and Elliott urged Ontarians to remain vigilant and to continue following public health measures.
The province, which loosened some pandemic restrictions this fall, will monitor the situation and information about the new variant, “and we will act quickly, if necessary.”
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the development demonstrates Canada’s monitoring system is working.
“I have spoken with my provincial counterpart in Ontario whose public health officials are working provincially and locally to contact and trace the cases.”
Duclos said it is expected that other cases of the variant will be found in Canada.
“I know that this new variant may seem concerning, but I want to remind Canadians that vaccination, in combination with public health and individual protective measures, is working to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and its variants in our communities.”
Elliott and Moore said the Ontario government is ready to respond to the new variant.
“Our hospital and intensive care capacity remain stable and the province continues to report one of the lowest rates of active cases in the country. The Ontario COVID-19 Genomic Network is continuing to actively monitor for all potential variants circulating in the province, including the Omicron variant, and is conducting genomic sequencing on 100 per cent of eligible COVID-19 positive samples.”
Ontario has also expanded eligibility for provincially funded COVID PCR testing at all testing centres to individuals who have returned from or travelled in South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe since Nov. 1. Asymptomatic family members and other household contacts are also eligible.
Elliott and Moore called on the federal government to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travellers no matter where they came from to further prevent spread of the variant.
“The best defence against the Omicron variant is stopping it at our border.”
Last week, Canada, along with other countries, restricted access to visitors from the same handful of Southern African countries.
The Omicron variant caused alarm — even rattling international markets — because of its number of mutations and the speed at which it is spreading in South Africa.
It includes more than 30 changes to the virus’s spike protein, the key target of the body’s immune responses. In other variants of concern, mutations to the spike protein have been linked with higher transmissibility and evasion immunity.
Ottawa’s Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a member of Canada’s Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network, says Omicron has the mutations other variants of concern had, plus many more.
“I think of it like a Frankenstein virus. It has pieces (of other variants of concern), but a whole bunch more. That is striking and notable, and along with the rapid increase (in cases in South Africa) that is enough to take this seriously.”
On Sunday, Manuel said it is just too early to know what the outcome of the new variant will be. The Delta variant remains dominant worldwide, but health officials expect it will soon be replaced by Omicron.
Earlier, Manuel had advised people to treat the new variant “as if it is already here.”
“I am not going to be surprised to hear there are cases (in Canada).”
That means strictly following public health guidelines about gathering, distancing and masking, especially in the weeks leading up to the holidays, which are traditionally a period of intensified socializing and contact. That could include ramping down holiday plans, he said.
No matter how quickly the new variant identified in South Africa spreads around the world or how virulent it proves to be, doubling down on public health measures could prevent a steep rise in cases in Ottawa and across the province leading to the holiday season. Last year, spiking cases led to lockdowns after Christmas.
On Sunday, in an update, the WHO said studies are being conducted to better understand Omicron, but it is not yet clear whether it is more easily spread from person to person than other variants or whether it causes more severe disease.
The WHO noted that cases have risen in areas of South Africa affected by the variant. Studies are underway to understand whether that is because of Omicron. Also, preliminary data suggests there are rising rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but that could be due to increasing numbers of people becoming infected.
Preliminary research suggests there might be an increased risk of re-infection with Omicron, but information is limited, said the World Health Organization. It encourages people to physically distance from others, to wear a well-fitting mask, open windows to improve ventilation, avoid crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, get vaccinated, and wash their hands.
More COVID-19 news
In Ottawa, 61 new cases were reported Sunday, part of a steady upward climb in the city as well. There have been 31,943 confirmed cases.
Ten people are in hospitals in Ottawa with active infections, none of them in intensive care.
Two resident deaths resulting from COVID-19 outbreaks were flagged by the Ottawa Public Health on Sunday — one at St. Patrick’s long-term care home and one at Chapel Hill Retirement Residence.
Both residences are experiencing outbreaks. It is not clear when the deaths occurred. There are eight active outbreaks in health-care facilities.
OPH also reported two new outbreaks in child-care or school settings for a total of 19 ongoing outbreaks in those environments. There also are two active community outbreaks, both in workplaces.
Even with high vaccination rates across the province and in Ottawa, officials are keeping a close eye on the spreading transmission of COVID-19 with the holiday season approaching, a time when people spend more time indoors and are highly social.
Nearly 90 per cent of Ontarians over 12 have had one dose of vaccine, while 86.3 per cent are fully vaccinated. The vaccination of children aged five to 11 began late last week and is continuing through the weekend.
Those vaccination rates will make a difference, say health experts, but only if other public health guidelines, including wearing masks, limiting contacts and keeping a safe distance, also continue to be followed. Some Ontario communities have introduced their own restrictions on indoor gatherings as local case counts begin to climb. The province loosened some restrictions earlier this fall for gatherings in locations where proof of vaccination is required.
Meanwhile, Ottawa Public Health is investigating after a person who tested positive for COVID-19 travelled from Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport to Barrhaven on the evening of Nov. 24 using a private ride-share service. The person was contagious at the time.
Ottawa Public Health has been unable to identify close contacts to check in with. The ride-share left the airport at about 8:30 p.m.
OPH says it wants to contact a man who picked up the single passenger from the airport in a white car on Nov. 24 between 8:30 pm and 10:30 pm. as they were likely exposed.
OPH is asking that person to immediately isolate and call to speak with a public health nurse at 613-580-6744.
“Ottawa Public Health recommends to travel by car only with people in your own household. If travelling with others outside of your own household, wear a mask, avoid any shared food or drinks, and avoid car travel with others if you’re sick.”
-With files from Hannah Daley
COVID-19 BY THE NUMBERS
61: New cases
31,943: Total cases
0: New deaths
618: Total deaths
345: Active cases
10: In hospital
0: In ICU
27.7: Rolling seven-day average of cases per 100,000 people
1.7: Per cent positivity in testing
1.06: Estimated seven-day reproduction rate, R(t). A number higher than 1 indicates the virus is spreading.
964: New confirmed cases
617,015: Total cases
1: New deaths
9,994: Total deaths
122: Patients in hospital with COVID-related illness
*135: COVID patients in intensive care
*85: On ventilators
(*Note: Ontario Public Health statistics of ICU hospitalizations and ventilator cases contain some patients who no longer test positive for COVID-19 but who are being treated for conditions caused by the virus.)
33,249: Doses administered in previous 24 hours
22,928,466: Total doses administered
11,250,989: Number of Ontarians 12 and over fully vaccinated (86.3 per cent)
29,692: Tests conducted in previous 24 hours
3.2: Per cent positivity
1.1: Estimated weekly reproductive number, R(t). A number higher than one indicates the virus is spreading.