Amid Omicron crush, Quebec to crack down on unvaccinated with new health tax

Amid Omicron crush, Quebec to crack down on unvaccinated with new health tax

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 Francois 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 on Tuesday, 255 of them were in intensive care.

Legault’s bold move, which will not apply to those with a medical exemption, followed the resignation Monday of Quebec’s director of public health. Dr. Horacio Arruda said he was stepping down because of an erosion of public confidence in health-protection measures.

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 3,220 hospitalizations on Tuesday, with 477 patients in the ICU — 250 of them on ventilators. The Ontario Hospital Association confirmed that 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.

In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising the provinces will have enough COVID-19 vaccines to provide eligible Canadian with a fourth dose of vaccine, if they become necessary.

Trudeau made the pledge in a statement issued 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.

The provinces had reported a combined total of 34,174 new COVID-19 cases from the previous day by early Tuesday morning, although the actual number is likely much higher.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Deena Hinshaw, said Monday the active case count released by the provincial government — 57,000 — was probably 10 times lower than the actual number.

After Ontario Premier Doug Ford confirmed late Monday that students will return to classrooms Jan. 17, the provincial health minister Christine Elliott was repeatedly asked Tuesday 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,” Christine Elliott 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?”

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 in Toronto

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press