As we head into the new year, another strain of COVID-19 — this time Omicron — is dominating the news and prompting some countries to reinstate lockdown restrictions to prevent its spread.

Initially discovered in South Africa and Botswana, Omicron carries an unusually high number of mutations that appear to make it more transmissible — and less susceptible to current vaccines — which led to the World Health Organization (WHO) naming it as a variant of concern in late November. Notably, Omicron contains 50 mutations, with 32 on the spike protein alone. The spike protein forms protruding knobs on the outside of the virus, which it then uses to enter and infect host cells. Preliminary research from scientists at the University of Hong Kong also found that Omicron multiplies about 70 times faster inside the human respiratory tract compared to the Delta variant.

“The evidence suggesting increased transmissibility is definitely concerning,” said Dr. Naila Kassam, a Toronto-based primary care physician and Think Research’s Senior Medical Advisor. “Omicron will become the dominant strain in Ontario this week and has already become the dominant strain in many parts of the world. We must remain vigilant to stop the spread.”

Cases in Ontario increasing

COVID-19 cases in Canada are steadily increasing. Ontario recorded nearly 3,800 new cases on December 20, and 4,177 on December 19, marking the highest one-day case count in more than eight months. Cases linked to Omicron are doubling every two days

The province’s science table also released a model projecting that without some lockdown measures and an accelerated third dose rollout, Ontario could see 5,000 to upwards of 10,000 COVID-19 cases per day by January 2022. This many cases would once again overwhelm our already strained hospitals and rapidly fill ICUs across the province.

“The projections are certainly alarming,” said Dr. Kassam. “If you haven’t received your vaccine yet, please do so as soon as possible. It’s still the best way to protect yourself and prevent the spread.”

With a busy travel season approaching, the Canadian government issued an advisory urging Canadians not to travel over the holidays to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Ontario also announced it will be reinstating capacity limits on indoor venues effective immediately. As of 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, December 19,  social gatherings will be capped at 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, down from 25 people indoors and up to 100 outdoors, and bars and restaurants will be ordered to stop serving alcohol by 10 p.m. each night and to close entirely by 11 p.m. Increasing cases in Quebec have also prompted the province to close schools, gyms, and bars and limit restaurant hours.

Omicron symptoms

A study published in Emerging Microbes and Infections found that the Omicron variant ‘exceeded all other COVID-19 variants in its ability to evade the protection gained from previous infection or vaccination.’ Though the unvaccinated still face the greatest risk, because the virus has mutated, a number of partially and fully vaccinated individuals are likely to get Omicron as well. The good news: it appears vaccines remain effective at preventing the worst outcomes of COVID-19, however booster shots are now critical to increasing our protection against the mutated virus.

According to reports, Omicron symptoms mimic that of a common cold, and often include:

  • Scratchy throat
  • Dry cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Night sweats
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion

“Though symptoms may be cold-like, it’s very important that we all take this variant very seriously,” said Dr. Kassam. “If you’re presenting with any cold-like symptoms, please book a covid test as soon as possible and self-isolate until you get your results. Stay hydrated and rest until you’re feeling better. If you’re feeling very ill, seek medical attention immediately.”

Do your part

After nearly two years of living with restrictions and changes to our daily lives, pandemic fatigue is real and has become commonplace in Canada and around the world. Though you might be growing tired of mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing, it’s now more critical than ever that we remain vigilant and do our part to stop the spread of Omicron and future mutations of the virus. Getting vaccinated is the best way to do your part.

Ontarians 18 and over can now book their booster vaccine by visiting or calling 1-833-943-3900. 

Boosters will be booked three months after you received your second dose.  

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