MONTREAL — Quebec confirmed its first case of the Omicron novel coronavirus variant on Monday, and officials said 115 travellers who recently returned to the province from affected countries, primarily in southern Africa, have been told to take a PCR test and isolate.
Health Minister Christian Dubé told a news conference experts are working to sequence the tests and to confirm whether the variant is more contagious, more virulent or more vaccine-resistant than previous strains.
Dubé said not enough is known about the new variant to say what impact it might have on the health of the population or to say whether the province will need to bring in new restrictions to control it.
"I don't want to worry people, but at the same time, I want us to be very aware of what is happening," he said in Montreal. It would take about two weeks for experts to better evaluate the new variant, he added.
While the government is not immediately tightening health restrictions, Dubé warned that the situation could change rapidly, especially for Quebecers who are travelling or planning to do so. "We need to be prudent, and if you don’t need to travel, I would avoid those travels if they’re not necessary," he said.
The World Health Organization declared Omicron a variant of concern on Friday, and on Monday, it warned that the global risk from the variant is "very high" based on early evidence, adding that the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with "severe consequences."
Ontario reported Canada's first two cases of the Omicron variant on Sunday. The province said Monday the two infected people were recently in Nigeria and were tested for the virus in Montreal before travelling on to Ottawa.
Public health director Horacio Arruda said Quebec's case also involved a person who had travelled from Nigeria, but he would not confirm whether it was linked to the Ontario cases. Arruda said he thinks there are likely other cases of the variant in Canada, given that experts believe Omicron has likely been circulating in some countries for weeks.
Arruda said early evidence suggests the new variant could be more contagious than previous strains, but he said it's unclear whether it's more severe. He said most of the South African cases occurred in younger people and involved mild symptoms.
"One scenario is that it could spread like Delta, could replace Delta and become the new variant, in the hopes it’s less virulent, less severe and the vaccine works," Arruda said. If the variant proves resistant to vaccines, manufacturers could likely adjust their formulas within three or four months, he said.
While Dubé praised the federal government's quick response to the variant, he added his voice to that of Ontario in calling for even stronger action, including boosting testing for returning international travellers. He also urged Ottawa to add more countries, including Nigeria, to the list of places from which travellers are banned from entering Canada. That list includes South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, Quebec reported 756 new cases of COVID-19 Monday and two more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. COVID-19-related hospitalizations jumped by 10 from the prior day, to 266, after 22 people entered hospital and 12 were discharged. The number of people in intensive care dropped by three, to 45.
Dubé said the "good news" was that much of the recent rise in cases involved children between the ages of five and 11. The province started vaccinating that age group at mass vaccine centres last week and began vaccinating that group in schools on Monday.
He said the under-12 vaccine campaign is going well, adding that about a third of eligible children have either been vaccinated or have booked an appointment for a first dose.
Dubé also urged Quebecers age 70 and over who are eligible for a third shot to get one. He said booster appointments in that age group are being made less quickly than he would like.
The health minister said the government expects to announce guidelines for holiday gatherings next week, once experts know more about Omicron. But in the meantime, he urged the population as a whole to respect the 10-person limit for indoor private gatherings and to follow other health measures such as masking, distancing and handwashing.
“We have to learn to live with the virus,” he said. “And learning to live with the virus means that even if we’d like to put all this behind us, we have to follow the health measures.”
As part of that effort, Dubé said he’d like to see rapid testing become more common in the province. He said Quebec has requested 10 million of the tests from Ottawa in the hopes of making them available to people in daycares and other settings.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Nov. 29, 2021.
— With files from The Associated Press.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press