Omicron 'progressing very rapidly' in Montreal, with 95 cases
While Montreal authorities don't yet have a full handle on Omicron's spread in the city, they know enough to see it's "progressing very rapidly," with 95 presumed cases, says the city's public health director.
Dr. Mylene Drouin gave an update Wednesday on the COVID-19 situation, as the province appears to hit a turning point.
"It's not exactly what we planned or hoped for two weeks before Christmas," she said, saying that despite preparations, the dramatic upturn in numbers in the last week still took her and others by surprise.
That news includes the 95 cases of the Omicron variant detected in the city, a big jump from a week ago, when just five cases of the new variant were confirmed across Quebec.
Most of the variant cases have been among the young and none have led to hospitalization or death.
Many lab results are expected soon that will reveal a bigger picture. In Ontario, the new variant already accounts for about 20 per cent of cases, Drouin said, and Quebec will know soon if it's around the same level.
Right now, it seems that the variant in Quebec is doubling its rate every "two or three days," she said.
Official statistics only show 13 new cases recorded as of Wednesday across the province. But the cases detected already in Montreal are much higher.
They include cases that are already confirmed, those pre-screened or partially confirmed by lab testing, and linked and other suspected cases.
Two schools have been closed due to possible Omicron outbreaks, with cases confirmed at each, and there are many other sites of community spread, Drouin said.
Half the known Omicron cases are "imported cases from travelling," Drouin said, mainly from people arriving from the United States, with another five cases each from Europe and Africa.
That would mean that roughly 37 local Omicron cases came from travellers who had been to the U.S.
The other half of the cases came from local contacts, Drouin said.
"We have one community centre [affected], two primary schools, two universities, one daycare centre, one gym and one sports team," she said.
So far, Omicron's effects have been mild, but it happens to be mostly spreading among younger people, with the median age of those infected so far around 32, Drouin said.
That raises a question as to "what will happen if the variant is introduced, for example, in places where we have an elderly population," she said.
Eighty per cent of the cases have been symptomatic, but not to the point of needing hospital care.
The variant does affect the vaccinated in large numbers, with 90 per cent of the known cases among people who have been fully vaccinated.
Drouin urged people to avoid pre-holiday parties and gatherings, saying it's really important right now to make a "collective effort" and use caution while Quebec waits and sees what happens.
MONTREAL POSITIVITY RATE AT 8 PER CENT
Across the province, overall daily cases skyrocketed to over 2,300, the highest province-wide number since the year's peak in early January.
However, deaths and hospitalizations are much lower than they were then, now that the vaccine is protecting most people against severe illness.
Looking at the provincial numbers doesn't necessarily show the situation Montreal is facing.
"We had more than 844 new cases yesterday, and we're expecting in the next days that this will continue to increase," said Drouin.
While the positivity rate of tests done across the province is already very high, at 5.8 per cent as of Wednesday, it's even higher in Montreal, at 8 per cent and growing, Drouin said.
The positivity rate is an important indicator of how much the virus is spreading in the community. In past waves of the pandemic, authorities used 5 per cent as an alarm threshold.
On the other hand, Drouin said, the good news is that Quebecers have a few new tools to tackle virus spread over the holiday, including the free rapid tests the province is handing out at pharmacies and through schools.
Schools are helping handle communications and tracing around their outbreaks. With the current numbers, the city can't contact trace all cases anymore, but it's channelling its resources into doing full investigations around the suspected Omicron cases, Drouin said.
"We're not able to do all the contact tracing... we don't have the capacity," she said.
But the Omicron outbreaks get "an intensive search.. we really are aggressive," she said. "We put our energy where we think we will have more impact."
HOSPITAL SYSTEM PREPARING
While vaccines provide a lot of protection against severe illness, it's not clear yet how a variant as infectious as Omicron could translate into hospitalization rates in Canada, scientists say.
"We are preparing, unfortunately, for a significant rise in hospitalizations," said Sonia Bélanger, the CEO of the south-central health district in Montreal.
There hasn't been a sharp rise yet in hospitalizations in Montreal, she said.
"Right now, in Montreal, we have 78 people hospitalized" for COVID-19, Belanger said.
But authorities have seen more and more demand at the city's emergency rooms, which are routinely about 25 per cent over-capacity right now, she said.
She also had a plea for Montrealers: don't get a COVID-19 test if you have no symptoms and just want to be cleared for holiday events. The demand for testing is too heavy to allow that.
"We have heard that some people are getting tested in order to attend to attend festivities in the following days, without having any symptoms," Bélanger said.
"Therefore I will repeat the instruction: before going to a clinic, you [must] have COVID-19 symptoms like fever, have difficulty breathing, or you have been in close contact with someone who has received a positive result."
On Wednesday, Premier François Legault also said plans for big Christmas gatherings may need to be dialled back, saying that the 20-person limit may be revisited, depending on how the situation unfolds.
A previous version of this story said the median age of those with Omicron infections in Montreal is 22. In fact, it's about 32. CTV regrets the error.