As infections fuelled by the Omicron variant threaten to overwhelm Canada's health system, the Quebec government on Tuesday took the unprecedented step of promising to tax adult residents who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Premier François Legault made the announcement as the province reported another daily record for virus-related hospitalizations. Of the 2,742 patients in Quebec hospitals with COVID-19, 255 of them were in intensive care.
The premier said the unvaccinated should be forced to pay for the burden they are placing on the health-care system, noting that half of those in intensive care are unvaccinated — even though that group comprises 10 per cent of the adult population. The tax would not apply to those with a medical exemption.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 3,220 hospitalizations Tuesday, with 477 patients in the ICU — 250 of them on ventilators. The Ontario Hospital Association confirmed 80 adults were admitted to hospital the previous day — the highest number of admissions so far during the pandemic.
The accelerated spread of Omicron has led to staff shortages across Canada, affecting hospitals, long-term care facilities and other essential services. As a result, non-urgent surgeries in Ontario have also been paused, affecting up to 10,000 scheduled procedures every week.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott announced that to cover staff shortages, internationally educated nurses will be allowed to work in Ontario hospitals, long-term care homes and other health settings.
After Ontario Premier Doug Ford confirmed late Monday that students will return to classrooms Jan. 17, Elliott was repeatedly asked to explain what health indicators had changed since last week to allow for the resumption of in-person learning.
"We have done everything we can to make our schools safe for our students," she told a news conference, adding that all students would be provided with three-ply masks.
"We are taking every step that we can possibly take to make sure our schools are safe for our children .... We needed just a bit more time to get those provisions in place."
Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, said while many teachers want to return to in-person learning, some are concerned about inadequate safety measures.
"What they've announced so far is not enough," Brown said. "We're almost two years into this pandemic. Why are we still asking for those things?"
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the provinces will have enough COVID-19 vaccines to provide those eligible with a fourth dose, if they become necessary. Trudeau made the pledge in a statement late Monday after he spoke with provincial and territorial leaders, saying Ottawa will do all it can to help them cope with the fifth wave of the pandemic.
"(The premiers) expressed concern over the strain on health-care systems, businesses, workers and families across the country," the statement said.
In New Brunswick, doctors were treating a record 88 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 14 in intensive care. Mathieu Chalifoux, the province's chief epidemiologist, said hospitalizations could jump to 200 if current trends continue.
"We are at the start of a very high tidal wave,” said John Dornan, interim president of the province's Horizon Health Network. "It's creeping up now, but in the next two to three weeks it's going to crash over us like no one's business."
In Nova Scotia, a legislative committee heard that 25 of the province's 133 nursing homes have stopped accepting new admissions because of staffing issues partly caused by the pandemic.
Prince Edward Island reported a series of outbreaks across the province, including in nine early learning childcare centres and clusters of cases in a long-term care facility, as well as within the population that regularly accesses shelters in Charlottetown.
British Columbia's provincial health officer warned that the latest wave of infections caused by Omicron could last for several more weeks.
Dr. Bonnie Henry said most of those who are getting sick have mild symptoms, but the unvaccinated are at highest risk of being hospitalized and seeing people in their 20s and 30s in intensive care creates distress for health-care workers.
"We're all feeling like we're getting battered by wave after wave of the storm," she said.
The leaders of Alberta's largest unions called for more lockdown measures, including the closure of theatres, casinos, gyms, amid rising case numbers. There were 708 people in hospital with COVID-19, up from 635 the day before, and 80 were in intensive care.
Nunavut remains under strict lockdown measures due to cases in various communities. But officials said more people are now recovering from COVID-19 than testing positive, and it's possible school may reopen there Jan. 24.
A new poll suggests a slim majority of Canadians supported the latest round of lockdowns and other government-imposed restrictions. Fifty-six per cent of respondents agreed governments are making the right decisions to limit the spread of Omicron.
The survey, conducted by Leger and the Association of Canadian Studies, also found 64 per cent of respondents said they supported vaccine passports for malls and other retail outlets, including liquor and cannabis shops but excluding grocery stores. The poll showed 61 per cent of respondents wanted vaccine requirements for public transit users.
Sixty-two per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with the federal government’s response to COVID-19.
The online survey of 1,547 Canadians was conducted between Jan. 5 and Jan. 7. It wasn't assigned a margin of error because internet-based polls are not considered random samples.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2022.
— With files from Jacob Serebrin in Montreal and Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Noushin Ziafati in Toronto
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press