Coronavirus: What’s happening in Canada and around the world on Friday

The latest:

New Brunswick hospitals are moving to urgent and emergency services only, the province’s health minister said Friday as she outlined how the province plans to respond to rapidly increasing COVID-19 case numbers.

The shift means people in New Brunswick can expect to see “non-urgent and elective surgeries, procedures and lab services cancelled,” Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said Friday.

The minister said New Brunswick, like other regions of the country, is seeing a surge in cases.

“At the current rate of growth, we could see as many as 1,000 new cases every day within a week,” she said. “While our hospitalization numbers remain relatively low, that is likely to change in the days ahead.”

Omicron does not appear to have the same severity as Delta for people who are vaccinated, particularly those who have had a booster, she said, but caution is still required due to the “sheer volume” of cases. The province on Friday reported one death and 682 cases of COVID-19 — a new high. According to the province’s COVID-19 dashboard, there were 45 people in hospital, with 21 in ICU.

COVID-19 is present in every community and every region of the province, she said, as she urged people to remain vigilant for symptoms and get boosted as soon as they are eligible.

The province is also shifting its testing and isolation guidelines and shifting to online education until at least Jan. 21.

The announcements came as Premier Blaine Higgs announced that he was in isolation after testing positive on a rapid test. 

The update comes a day after Nova Scotia said it would ramp up its COVID-19 vaccine booster program, as the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus continued to drive high case counts in that province and elsewhere in Atlantic Canada.

Starting next week, Nova Scotia will accelerate its descending age-based approach for boosters to include those 30 years of age and older, Premier Tim Houston told reporters. About 500,000 people aged 30 to 49 will become eligible for a booster in January.

The province reported 618 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total number of active infections to 5,117. The number of people in hospitals with COVID-19 rose to 34 — up from 25 on Thursday — including four people in intensive care.

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health, said that public health is closely monitoring hospitalizations.

“So far it’s very low, about 0.5 per cent,” Strang told reporters, referring to the percentage of cases that end up in hospital. “It is ticking upward but we’re seeing a moderate rise, which gives some comfort but it’s also not enough to relax at this point in time.”

He said the speed of the highly infectious Omicron variant means the virus will move quickly through the population. What’s important, he said, is slowing down the spread so the health system isn’t overwhelmed.

In Prince Edward Island, chief public health officer Dr. Heather Morrison said Thursday that emerging evidence indicating the Omicron variant is relatively mild to moderate in its effects means that the virus in her province is beginning to transition from a “pandemic to endemic state.”

“Meaning that there will be, at some point, stable transmission of this virus,” Morrison told reporters, as the premier outlined a plan to restore a financial benefit plan for impacted workers.

The Island reported 175 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, a new single-day record. There are currently 814 active cases in the province. Three people were in hospital because of the disease, while five other patients in hospital for non-COVID-19 reasons have tested positive.

Meanwhile, health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador reported a single-day record of 431 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, as well as one additional death. There were 1,746 active reported infections in the province.

— From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 1:45 p.m. ET

What’s happening across Canada

WATCH | Provinces rewrite isolation rules to counter rising staff shortages: 

Provinces rewrite isolation rules to counter rising staff shortages

Provinces like P.E.I. and Saskatchewan are rewriting isolation rules for certain groups of employees in an attempt to prevent staff shortages and the loss of essential services. 2:04

For more details on the situation in your province and territory — including the latest on hospitalizations and ICU capacity, as well as details on how provinces are handling surging demand for tests — click through to the local coverage below. With testing capacity strained, experts say true case counts are likely far higher than reported. Hospitalization data at the regional level is also evolving, with several provinces saying they will begin to report more precise data that separates the number of people in hospital because of COVID-19 from those in hospital for another medical issue who also happen to test positive for COVID.

In Central Canada, Ontario on Friday saw 16,713 new cases of COVID-19 and 15 additional deaths. The update comes a day after the top health official announced the province was delaying the start of school by two days and revamping testing and isolation rules, as daily COVID-19 cases continue to break records. Classes were set to resume Monday in much of the province, but the holiday break will now end on Wednesday.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore also announced on Thursday that publicly funded PCR testing will now be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

In Quebec, new restrictions and a curfew will go into effect later Friday after an announcement from Premer François Legault on Thursday. The changes come into effect as health officials in the province reported 16,641 new cases of COVID-19 — another high —  and 13 additional deaths. 

In the North, Nunavut on Friday reported another 40 cases of COVID-19. Premier P.J. Akeeagok earlier this week announced an extension of restrictions as the health system faced increasing strain. Health officials in Yukon and the Northwest Territories, which announced a delayed return to class, had not yet provided updated figures for the day.

In the Prairie provinces, Alberta is reducing the mandatory isolation period for fully vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 to five days from the current 10, effective Monday.

People whose symptoms are resolving after five days of isolation will need to wear a mask when around others outside of home for another five days, Health Minister Jason Copping said at a news conference Friday. Those who still have symptoms will have to remain in isolation. Unvaccinated people who contract COVID-19 will still be required to isolate for 10 days.

“We are making these changes to help prevent disruptions in the Alberta workforce, especially for those who deliver services that Albertans count on,” he said.

The province has delayed the return to kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms until Jan. 10 as it sees surging COVID-19 cases.

Manitoba reported a single-day high of 1,494 new cases on Friday, as well as five new deaths. The five-day test positivity rate in the province continues to increase, reaching 30.7 per cent.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said Thursday the government is changing the metric of how it tracks COVID-19 infections as the province sees rising cases, but decreasing hospitalizations. Moe said he won’t bring in any new public health orders or restrictions because vaccines and regular testing are lowering the number of deadly health conditions caused by the Omicron variant of COVID-19. The province as of Thursday had 79 people in hospital related to COVID-19, including 14 in intensive care. Moe’s update came as the province reported 589 new cases and four additional deaths.

In British Columbia, health officials saw 4,383 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday with one additional death. The province’s health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, in a year-end interview with CBC News, said the virus will eventually become endemic, but she cautioned that there are still many unknowns about what is to come.

— From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 1:45 p.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

A staffer at the Sheba Medical Center receives a fourth dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, in Ramat Gan, Israel on Monday. (Tsafrir Abayov/The Associated Press)

As of early Friday afternoon, roughly 286.8 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.4 million.

In the Middle East, Israel is to go ahead with second COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for people with weakened immune systems, the top government health official said on Thursday, but a final decision on wider usage is still pending.

In Europe, Paris region health authorities have instructed hospitals to cancel more non-urgent medical procedures to free up intensive care beds for the growing influx of people gravely sick with COVID-19.

The regional health authority said Friday that it expects within days to surge past the mark of 50 per cent of intensive care beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. The Paris region normally has about 2,000 intensive care beds but can create more by cancelling non-urgent surgical procedures. Paris region hospitals had already started that process but have now been instructed to speed up cancellations.

The region’s hospitals had about 740 COVID-19 patients in intensive care on Friday, up from about 600 a week ago. The regional health authority said the decision to clear more beds for COVID-19 patients is also driven by skyrocketing infection rates in Paris, including the doubling in a week of the incidence rate among people aged 65 and above.

Britain has approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 pill for patients over the age of 18 years who have mild to moderate infection and are at high risk of their illness worsening. The approval comes as the country scrambles to build its defences amid rapid increasing case numbers. Based on data, the pill, Paxlovid, is most effective when taken during the early stages of COVID-19, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said on Friday, recommending that the drug be used within five days of the onset of symptoms.

In Africa, South Africa has lifted a midnight to 4 a.m. curfew on people’s movement with immediate effect, believing the country has passed the peak of its fourth COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron variant.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines will impose tighter curbs in the capital region for the next two weeks, the acting presidential spokesperson said on Friday, to try to limit infections by the Omicron variant. The health ministry on Friday recorded 2,961 new coronavirus infections, a two-month high, and reported a positivity rate of 10.3 per cent.

The region including the capital Manila is an urban sprawl of 16 cities that is home to more than 13 million people. It will be placed under the third part of a five-scale alert system on Jan. 3 to 15, spokesperson Karlo Nograles said.

New coronavirus infections soared again in Australia on Friday to a record of more than 32,000, just days after surpassing 10,000 for the first time. While hospitalizations and deaths have been increasing from the surge, so far they haven’t reached comparative levels seen in previous outbreaks.

Meanwhile, South Korea says it will extend its toughest distancing rules for another two weeks to try to lower critical cases and guard against the Omicron variant.

In the Americas, the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine caused mostly mild side effects in children aged 5 to 11 years, according to data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

Meanwhile, thousands of flights within the United States and internationally were delayed or cancelled on Friday, adding to the travel disruptions during the holiday week due to adverse weather and rising cases of the Omicron variant.

— From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 12:15 p.m. ET

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