Two more cases of new variant confirmed in Ottawa, as WHO warns of 'very high risk'

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Two more cases of new variant confirmed in Ottawa, as WHO warns of 'very high risk'
© Provided by Ottawa Citizen Hector Addison, who heads the African Canadian Association of Ottawa, wonders why Africa is being singled out for travel bans associated with the Omicron variant. ‘It is already in four continents; why single out Africa?’

Two more confirmed cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant were announced by the City of Ottawa’s top doctor on Monday, bringing the total number to four.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa Public Health’s medical officer of health, said the four cases aren’t related to each other.

“They are all people who travelled independently and have been confirmed positive since their return,” Etches said during a news conference Monday night after a health board meeting. “They are all isolating and following federal guidance. They all did come from Nigeria through to Ottawa.”

Etches said there’s no evidence of local transmission of Omicron. Health unit staff are following up with all high-risk contacts so the people understand when they should seek testing, Etches said.

The Ottawa cases announced over the weekend were the first in Canada of the variant that has put the world on alert.

Etches said the health unit, as of Monday, had a list of 15 travellers from several countries in southern Africa over the last 14 days. Staff were following up to make sure the travellers follow public health guidance from the federal government.

Etches predicted that the city might see an increase in people testing positive for COVID-19 because of the Omicron variant, but she noted that people now know how to reduce risks by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and practising physical distancing.

“This is not a new virus,” Etches said.

There are no additional public health restrictions required in Ottawa so far because of Omicron, she said, noting the “stable level of COVID” in the city.

“We’ll let people know if the picture is changing,” Etches said. “(Residents) have held things steady through the Delta variant and we need to continue to use those measures that we know make a difference to slow down COVID transmission.”

Two other potential cases of the variant are under investigation in Hamilton, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said. In addition, 375 recent travellers from southern African countries that are the focus of travel restrictions are being tested across Ontario. Quebec also confirmed a case of the variant on Monday.

The new cases were confirmed as the World Health Organization warned that Omicron is a “very high risk” globally. Early evidence suggests the variant has the potential of immune escape and higher transmissibility that could lead to further surges of the pandemic with “severe consequences”, the international health body said in a statement.

The Omicron variant contains many more mutations than previous COVID-19 variants, which has raised fears that it could evade immunity from vaccines or previous illness. It also appears to spread rapidly. More research is being done to understand how virulent it is compared to other variants.

Moore said he expects more cases of Omicron to be identified in the coming days in Ontario. The majority of positive COVID-19 tests in the province are screened for variants.

Omicron was declared a variant of concern by the WHO just last Friday. It was first identified in Botswana and South Africa. Since then, a growing number of countries around the world, including Canada, have identified cases and have issued travel bans.

Moore said it is becoming clear that the variant has been present around the world “for many weeks and months and has spread to multiple locations”.

Canada’s move to restrict travel from seven southern African countries in response to the rise of the variant is being criticized by members of Ottawa’s African community as racist and xenophobic.

“People are angry,” said Hector Addison who heads the African Canadian Association of Ottawa. “They feel like it is xenophobia that Africa is singled out for travel bans. It is already in four continents; why single out Africa?”

Addison said he has spoken with Ottawa Public Health about the messaging around travel bans and mandatory testing of Canadians who have travelled to parts of Africa.

What is really crucial, said Addison, is improving vaccine equity around the world. Some of the southern African countries with growing cases of the new variant have had difficulty getting access to COVID-19 vaccines because wealthier countries have monopolized the supply.

“It has to be fair and equitable. We feel like (travel bans) are a knee-jerk reaction.”

Health experts and others have also expressed concern that South Africa, whose scientists discovered Omicron, is being punished for its transparency. On Monday, there were reports that South African scientists are running out of the chemicals they need to identify the variant in tests because of travel bans.

Canada issued travel restrictions on South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini. People travelling from there must isolate and get tested.

But that list does not include Nigeria, which is connected with the four cases in Ottawa.

The first two Ottawa Omicron patients returned to Canada through Montreal-Trudeau International Airport and were tested randomly, Moore said.

“We were fortunate to pick up those two cases as part of a random testing strategy,” he said.

Ontario is calling on the federal government to expand testing in response to the new variant of concern and test everyone coming back into Canada.

OPH is asking anyone who has travelled to the list of seven southern African countries under travel restriction in addition to Nigeria 14 days before arriving in Ottawa to immediately isolate, even if they are fully vaccinated, and to get tested.

Moore said Ontario is prepared for the new variant with robust testing, high vaccination rates and hospital capacity, although he acknowledged there are still many questions that need to be answered about Omicron.

“I want us all to remain calm, remain science-driven, evidence-informed and to follow the epidemiology.”

This fall, the Ontario government loosened some indoor capacity restrictions in restaurants and other places where proof of vaccination is required. On Monday, Moore said he doesn’t foresee taking any steps back to more restrictions “at present”, but that could depend on new information about the variant, including how virulent it is.

The province encourages restrictions regionally by public health units in response to climbing case counts or other pressures on the health system.

Moore encouraged people to “go back to basics” and keep social gatherings small, keep masks on and maintain physical distance from others. Those actions, and vaccines, are the best protection, he said.

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