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Quebec, Ontario officials express cautious COVID optimism, others brace for the worst

Officials in Quebec and Ontario said they saw signs of hope on Tuesday that the peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations could soon be behind them — despite both provinces setting new admissions records — while other governments braced for new hardships.
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Officials in Quebec and Ontario said they saw signs of hope on Tuesday that the peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations could soon be behind them — despite both provinces setting new admissions records — while other governments braced for new hardships.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford told Ottawa radio station CFRA that his government may announce a plan to reduce COVID-19 restrictions in the coming days, even as the number of patients with the disease in the province's hospitals reached a new summit.

"There’s no one that dislikes these lockdowns more than I do. I actually despise them," the premier said, adding that he would follow the advice of the chief medical officer of health.

The government announced on Jan. 3 that restrictions would be imposed on businesses until at least Jan. 26 due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

Toronto medical officer of health Eileen de Villa told reporters that the rate of infection in the city may have plateaued or started to decline, although she said the situation continued to put a strain on hospitals.

That cautious optimism was echoed by Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, who said the rate of daily admissions had decreased slightly, even as he warned that hospitals remained under "tremendous pressure."

Ontario reported a record 4,183 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 580 people in intensive care, while Quebec saw 89 more deaths and a 36-patient rise in hospitalizations, for a total of 3,417 — also a record.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said daily hospitalizations appeared to be rising less rapidly compared with prior weeks, even though the number of patients has not yet peaked.

"We're still in the storm," he told reporters in Montreal.

He said some 12,000 health-care workers remained off the job because of COVID-19, down from 20,000 earlier this month.

The government lifted the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on Monday, but Dubé said it was still too early to consider lifting other restrictions. The government on Tuesday also started to require Quebecers to show proof of vaccination to enter liquor and cannabis stores. 

In contrast to Quebec and Ontario, health officials in Saskatchewan warned that the peak of the current wave in the province may still be weeks away.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority said health-care services and surgeries may be affected in the weeks ahead when a tide of COVID-19 hospitalizations and absenteeism among workers is expected to hit. Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab warned that hospitalizations would likely climb until mid-February.

Alberta's chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, also said hospitalization rates are rising to levels not seen there since mid-October. There were 1,089 people in hospital with the virus, including 104 in intensive care.

Prince Edward Island, meanwhile, announced it was reducing gathering sizes and closing gyms and restaurant dining rooms to stem the growing number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The new restrictions, which include continued online learning for schools, will be in place until at least Jan. 31.

British Columbia said it will allow the reopening of gyms and fitness centres, although provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry extended the closure of bars and nightclubs and kept capacity limits for restaurants, theatres and large venues until at least Feb. 16.

Henry said extended regulations are necessary because of the current rates of transmission and increasing numbers of people needing health care, the highest level yet since the pandemic started.

Nunavut reported its fifth death of the COVID-19 pandemic and the first of the current wave driven by the Omicron variant.

Canada reported more than 100 deaths a day on average this week, the highest death rate since February 2021. The country also reported 824 deaths due to COVID-19 in the last seven days — an average of 118 per day — from Jan. 11-17, according to the Our World in Data report, which is a University of Oxford project that imports data from governments around the world.

Even as hospitalizations climb, there is hope that Health Canada's approval of Pfizer's antiviral COVID-19 treatment could help ease some of the burden in the months to come.

Clinical trials showed treatment with Paxlovid reduced the risk of hospitalization and death caused by COVID-19 by 89 per cent when the medications were started within three days of the beginning of symptoms and by 85 per cent when started within five days.

Dubé said the treatment's approval was "good news," but vaccination remains Quebec's best tool to fight COVID-19 in the short term. The province said Paxlovid would be initially reserved for people who are immunosuppressed — regardless of vaccination status — because of limited supply.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh urged the federal government to fast-track immigration applications for nurses and other qualified health-care workers who want to immigrate to Canada. Speeding up the processing of permanent residency applications, he told a virtual news conference, would help address the current nursing shortage. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.

— With files from Marie Woolf and Mia Rabson in Ottawa, Jacob Serebrin in Montreal and Allison Jones in Toronto.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press