Ontario on high alert due to new COVID-19 variant called Omicron

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore. (Screenshot from November 29, 2021 news conference)

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health is urging calm after two cases of the new COVID-19 variant of concern detected in southern Africa last week were found in Ottawa this weekend.

Dr. Kieran Moore said in a  news conference Monday morning that they are isolated and being closely monitored. He added that Ontario is ready to handle whatever comes our way.

Moore also urges people to get tested and get their booster shots to keep the new high risk variant called Omicron and other variants under control. Moore also urges returning travelers from the seven countries in southern Africa (South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Namibia) where the variant was detected last week and their close contacts to get tested.

Moore is also urging the public to remain vigilant and keep following public health safety measures like social distancing and masking. He said the COVID-19 vaccine and the current public health safety measures have been working and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to work, although he said we need more answers about Omicron.

Moore said the province will continue with its current public health strategy and not impose further public health restrictions if the vaccine continues to work and the hospitals don’t fill up.

“I want us all to remain calm, remain science driven, keep informed, and follow the epidemiology of the science,” he said.

He said this is a developing situation and Ontario continues to monitor trends.

“We are investigating other cases [of Omicron] and I would not be surprised if we found more in Ontario,” said Dr. Moore of Omicron.

Several medical experts said it will take about two weeks to get answers about the high risk Omicron to determine if it’s vaccine resistant and how big the risk of reinfection is.

Pfizer and Moderna have already said they can tweak their vaccine formulas to handle the higher risk Omicron.

Moore noted future border restrictions are a federal responsibility, but he said the province is at the table voicing their concerns about it.

“This is a rapidly changing environment. Lots of questions yet about this new strain that we have to have answers for. We need to understand if this is a virulent, if it makes people significantly sick or leads to hospitalization. We really don’t have that information yet,” said Moore.

Moore said 375 people have returned to Ontario from the seven countries in southern Africa in the last two weeks and he’s urging the federal government to announce enhanced testing for return travelers. He also said those return travelers have been contacted and tested. Moore said he’s waiting for four results from cases in Ottawa and Hamilton.

The two new Omicron cases in Ontario tested positive in Montreal after traveling to Nigeria.

On Friday, the federal government banned visitors from seven countries in southern Africa, but Nigeria was not on the list at the time.

Omicron has been spreading very quickly around the world. Portugal and Scotland joined Belgium and Italy as countries reporting the new variant.

Moore also said a new strategy will be announced this later week to best protect Ontarians from infection. Moore added other vaccines like the more traditional Novavax and monoclonal antibodies are being closely reviewed to treat the unvaccinated. He anticipates those treatments and therapeutics could be available early in the new year.