(Reuters) – COVID-19 cases in Canada may rapidly rise in the coming days due to community spread of the Omicron variant, mirroring the situation in the country’s most populous province of Ontario, Canada’s top health official said on Monday.
The surge of COVID-19 cases in Ontario, which accounts for almost 40% of Canada’s population of 39 million people, has prompted the provincial government to suspend easing of restrictions that were planned to be lifted ahead of the holiday season.
The province reported 1,536 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, a more-than 70% jump from a week ago, including 80 cases of the Omicron variant, which has spread across over 60 countries since being first detected last month.
The World Health Organization has said that the Omicron variant poses a “very high” global risk, with some evidence that it evades vaccine protection, but clinical data on its severity is limited.
At least one patient has died in Britain after contracting Omicron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday.
Ontario has directed government staff, who started gradually returning to their offices in November, to go back to working from home at least until early-February, CTV news reported Monday.
Provincial capital Toronto, which employs about 25% of the city’s workforce, said its staff would continue to work remotely in accordance with new guidance from health officials.
Toronto-based Bank of Nova Scotia, Canada’s third-largest lender, also decided to pause an earlier plan for employees working remotely to return to its head office starting on Jan. 17.
In the Ontarian city of Kingston, to the east of Toronto, authorities imposed restrictions to combat Omicron infections. In a temporary order on Monday, they said no more than five people could congregate, while restaurants must not allow indoor dining after 10 p.m.
“So what we’re seeing in Ontario, I expect to be seen in other areas of the country, as has been seen in Europe and other areas of the world,” chief public health officer Theresa Tam told a news conference.
“But for sure we are seeing community transmission, possibly in its early stages, but this can rapidly escalate in the days to come,” she added, after announcing recommendations to improve the Canadian public health system in a report to the parliament.
Canada needs to hire more health workers, improve technology and governance, as well as provide more stable funding, she said in the report.
(Reporting by Ismail Shakil in Bengaluru; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Stephen Coates)