MONTREAL -- Quebec's health minister announced Monday the province has confirmed its first case of the new COVID-19 variant known as Omicron that has spread to several countries and put health officials around the world on heightened alert. 

Minister Christian Dubé made the announcement at a press conference in Montreal alongside Dr. Horacio Arruda, the director of public health.

The update from the province comes as Canadian health officials are monitoring the spread of the new coronavirus variant, which was first detected in southern Africa.

It has since spread to at least 15 countries --including Germany, Australia, and Scotland -- and was first confirmed in Canada on Sunday in two travellers arriving in Ottawa from a trip to Nigeria.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, announced Monday morning that the two travellers entered the country at Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and were tested there before arriving in Ottawa. Four other suspected cases are being investigated in Ontario -- two in Ottawa and two in Hamilton. 

Like in the Ottawa cases, the woman in Quebec who tested positive with the Omicron variant had also travelled to Nigeria, according to Dr. Arruda, who added that he couldn't reveal more details about the positive case due to privacy reasons. 

Dubé said Monday that the health ministry was made aware of at least 115 travellers arriving in Quebec from “countries affected by the new variant” and that they have been asked to do a new PCR test as well as self-isolate.

Results from the genomic sequencing, however, are not expected for about two weeks -- a timeline that he said is "too long."

He also complained that the federal government has not yet placed Nigeria on Canada's new travel ban, which restricted travel from foreign nationals who have visited several countries in southern Africa in the last two weeks. 

The federal government needs to make "a very quick decision on additional countries" and consider expanding PCR testing at the airports for all travellers, regardless of where they're coming from, according to Dubé. A similar demand was made by Ontario earlier in the day Monday. 

What's concerning about the new coronavirus variant is that preliminary research on it showed it has more than 30 mutations of the spike protein, which can change the way a virus spreads and potentially make it harder for the body's immune system to fight it. 

Two things public health officials in Quebec are closely monitoring is whether or not the new variant is resistant to protection from vaccines and whether or not Omicron is more virulent than previous strains of the virus. At this point, it's too soon to tell. 


In the meantime, the provincial government is urging people to seriously reconsider planning trips abroad for the holiday season.

“I'm thinking of the ones that are planning trips for the holidays to really think about that because we can see that the variant is starting to spread all over the world,” Dubé said.

The health minister also used the opportunity to remind the public that health measures are still in place and need to be followed and that holiday gatherings are no exception. Indoor gatherings in homes are still limited to 10 people in Quebec. 

Dr. Arruda came out in defence of the current restrictions on home gatherings when compared to the large crowds gathered in places like the Bell Centre, which can welcome upwards of 20,000 fully vaccinated fans.

What it comes down to, he said, is how different the type of contact people have in homes. 

"We know that the risk of transmission at home is very different because the contacts are different. The close contacts, the timing, is different. And so actually, what is virulent is schools with no vaccination of the five to 11 years, and it's them  who will bring, sometimes, the virus at home or at work for their parents," he said.

"There are some hockey games [that] can give you some cases, but not the ones from Bell [Centre] or these kinds of events."

The Omicron variant is yet another reason to get vaccinated, according to Minister Dubé, who urged people aged 70 and older to book their booster shots since the uptake has not yet been at the levels the province was expecting. 

"We have to learn to live with this virus. We must not relax our good practices: Respect health measures, get vaccinated, and get tested," Dubé said.

"The next few weeks will be critical."

On Monday, Quebec reported 756 new COVID-19 cases and an increase of 10 hospitalizations in the last 24 hours.