Ontario confirms two more Omicron COVID-19 variant cases, bringing confirmed total to four
Ontario has now confirmed a total of four cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in the province. Ottawa Public Health confirmed Monday evening that two more travellers have tested positive for the variant.
“Yesterday the government of Ontario announced two individuals in Ottawa tested positive for the COVID 19 omicron variant with recent travel to Nigeria. We are now aware of two other returned travellers who have tested positive for the omicron variant,” the health unit said in a statement.
Earlier Monday, the province said it was investigating four additional COVID-positive people who met specific high-risk criteria for the Omicron coronavirus variant, and the province’s chief medical officer suggested limiting the investigation focus on returnees from southern Africa is not a wise idea.
Dr. Kieran Moore said beyond the first two Ottawa residents confirmed to have the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant on Sunday, there were four other individuals – two also in Ottawa and two others in Hamilton – whose positive COVID-19 samples were undergoing whole genomic sequencing.
While the two additional travellers residing in Ottawa have now tested positive for the variant, results have not yet come back from health officials in Hamilton for those cases.
Ottawa Public Health did not say where the two additional travellers had been. All four confirmed cases are now self-isolating.
Three hundred and seventy five other returnees from seven different southern African countries who arrived in Ontario over the past two weeks were offered asymptomatic testing and are undergoing mandatory home quarantine.
“If they’re positive, we have good local capacity to respond to them,” Moore told reporters on Monday.
He said the first two Ottawa residents confirmed to have Omicron returned to Canada from Nigeria through Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport and had their test samples sequenced by chance as part of a random genomic surveillance program.
Hamilton Public Health said Monday that the two cases they are investigating for the Omicron variant both recently returned to Ontario from South Africa.
Since Nov. 5, the province has run virtually all positive samples through whole genomic sequencing, a genetic mapping procedure conducted in a lab that can take up to four days to complete.
Given the fact that dozens of countries around the world have now detected at least one Omicron variant case, Moore said the current travel restrictions and testing guidance which focuses on southern Africa doesn’t make much sense.
“I think we’re learning from the epidemiology of this that this virus has been present on the globe for many, many weeks if not months,” he said.
“It may be more prudent to broaden the testing of all returning travellers.”
The focus on isolating returnees and banning flights from southern Africa has drawn condemnation from epidemiologists, as it appears to punish the South African government for being so forthright with their research and ignores the chasm of vaccine inequity still dividing the continent from its wealthier peers in Europe and North America.
The focus on southern Africa also ignores the fact that there have been Omicron cases found in Europe with either no history of travel to southern Africa or a travel history elsewhere, such as Egypt.
He said that they still do not have definitive data on whether Omicron is more virulent or capable of vaccine escape.
“I don’t foresee us having to take any (new) steps at present, we will have to understand if it is more virulent or increases incidence of hospitalization.”
“We’re still learning more – Dr. Moore was very clear that if there is a big change in circumstance, including new variant that is problematic, we would have to stay where we are and reassess.”
Elliott said her ministry was working with federal officials to bolster testing capacity at all points of entry into Ontario.
As of tomorrow, fully-vaccinated travellers returning from the U.S. who spend less than 72 hours there will be exempt from showing proof of a negative PCR test upon arrival.
Fully-vaccinated incoming travellers are tested at airports only on a random basis.
There is no word on whether the federal government will move to administer tests to everyone arriving at a land border crossing or airport.
Quebec announced its first confirmed case of Omicron on Monday afternoon.
In response to the arrival of Omicron, Green Party of Ontario leader Mike Schreiner called on the Ford government to make vaccination mandatory for healthcare and education workers, and provide respirator-quality masks to everyone in those sectors (including students).
The variant was first detected on Nov. 24 in a specimen collected on Nov. 9, according to data submitted by South African scientists to the World Health Organization (WHO) who later labelled Omicron as a global variant of concern.
Dr. Peter Jüni, medical director of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, told CP24 the public should expect Omicron to become the dominant strain of coronavirus in Ontario in "a few weeks to a few months."