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Collecting data on Omicron variant could take months, health minister says

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TORONTO — It could take months to assess Omicron's impact on the province's plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions, Ontario's health minister said Monday, as officials investigated a large potential cluster of the new variant.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit announced it is investigating a cluster of at least 30 COVID-19 cases with a "strong probability" of Omicron being involved.

Health Minister Christine Elliott was asked Monday about the province's plan to loosen rules on vaccine certificates in some settings as early as Jan. 17, in light of a recent surge in cases and the emergence of the potentially dangerous new variant.

Speaking during question period, Elliott said the province has always said it would adjust its plan if the situation called for it.

"We're planning to start lifting things but if this Omicron variant circulates widely, and if it's a virulent as it has been in other jurisdictions, we are going to need to take a look at that," she said.

"But right now, we don't have the pertinent information that we need in order to make a decision. I anticipate that will become evident over the next several months as we see what happens in South Africa and other jurisdictions."

Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said with the arrival of Omicron variant to Ontario, it's important to continue keeping unvaccinated people out of high-risk settings.

"There's no way we can lift vaccines certificates therefore," he said.

"What will happen is if you admit people who are unvaccinated to a restaurant...case numbers might explode then and our ICUs could be overwhelmed with unvaccinated people within weeks."

In the London area, the health unit said the number of high-risk close contacts of the suspected Omicron cluster is expected to surpass 100.

Health officials said they learned Sunday evening of two COVID-19 cases that had screened positive for a gene that is a marker for the variant. Those two people are part of the cluster of COVID-19 cases, which the health unit said is linked to travellers who returned from Nigeria in late November.

Cases associated with the cluster have been linked to several schools and child-care centres, as well as an outbreak at a church called God’s Favourite House, the health unit said.

So far, there have been at least 13 cases of the new Omicron variant confirmed in Ontario, provincial data show. The variant, believed to be more transmissible than others, was first identified in South Africa but has been detected in a number of other countries.

On Sunday, health officials in Thunder Bay, Ont., said the variant was confirmed in four residents, and was anticipated to be confirmed in four more in the coming days. The Thunder Bay District Health Unit said all individuals affected are in the same household and have been isolating. The unit said there is a "direct link" to southern Africa.

Opposition politicians said the government needs to hold off on lifting any public health measures for the time being in light of the Omicron variant.

"It is very surprising that they are not signalling to Ontarians that we need to keep those certificates going for the foreseeable future," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.

Ontario reported 887 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, pushing the seven-day average up to 940. The province also recorded three new deaths from the virus.

The minister said 168 people are in intensive care units due to COVID-19, though not all hospitals report updated numbers on weekends.

People who are not fully vaccinated accounted for 397 of Monday's new cases, and make up 23.3 per cent of Ontario's population, while 64 cases are in people whose vaccination status isn't known, Elliott said.

Juni said the province has seen more COVID-19 infections among fully vaccinated people because vaccine certificates are allowing them to have higher-risk exposures than unvaccinated people and because of waning immunity.

Immunity from the COVID-19 vaccines starts to wane after about six months, officials say, though in lower-risk populations it's protection from mild illness that wanes, while protection against severe illness is still strong.

While many people are now receiving booster doses and eligibility is soon set to lower to people 50 and older, Juni said there are currently one million people in the province six months past their second dose and in the next three weeks, another three million people will reach that date.

"Our vaccine roll-out in the summer was so successful that we are now have this very large proportion of people reaching the six months cut off," Juni said.

Meanwhile, Toronto health officials said breakthrough COVID-19 infections have occurred in 0.17 per cent of fully vaccinated residents in the city — 3,936 cases in nearly 2.3 million Toronto residents 12 and older who were fully vaccinated at the time of the analysis.

The city said its data show that people who are unvaccinated are two times more likely to become infected with COVID-19, five times more likely to become hospitalized, and 20 times more likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit than those who are fully vaccinated.

— With files from Maan Alhmidi

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press