Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen so far in the pandemic, according to updated data released Monday by the table of sciences of the province, and the public must prepare for a large number of infections.

The independent group of experts found that new cases of the variant are doubling roughly every three days, accounting for about 31 percent of cases, at press time. Omicron’s effective breeding number, 4.01, is roughly four times that of Delta, meaning that each person infected with the variant will spread it on average to four others.

“We will see staggering amounts of COVID that the public is just not used to hearing,” said Dr. Andrew Morris, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Toronto and a member of the science board.

“We will speak of thousands in the same way that we have been speaking of hundreds.”

The new numbers come as some health units are implementing public health restrictions in an attempt to control the increase in cases. The Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington public health unit limited meetings to five people on Monday, and on Sunday, Queen’s University canceled all in-person exams.

Some employers that had begun welcoming employees are reinstating work-from-home protocols, such as the Ontario Public Service and the City of Toronto. Canada’s director of public health, Dr. Theresa Tam, told reporters that Omicron cases are expected to “escalate rapidly” and that the new variant will overtake Delta to become dominant in most of the country by two. weeks.

A new Oxford University pre-print study Posted online Monday offers a new perspective on Omicron and vaccines: It found that two doses of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines were much less effective against Omicron than against previous variants. The researchers introduced Omicron into blood samples in the laboratory that came from people 28 days after the second dose and reported a “substantial decrease” in neutralizing antibodies that fight COVID-19.

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There are still many unknowns about Omicron, which was first detected by South African scientists in late November, but was probably circulating much earlier.

The Oxford research gives us an idea of ​​what kind of protection we can expect from vaccines, but we will need real-world data to be sure, said Eleanor Fish, a professor of immunology at the University of Toronto, noting that the study did not. . Be aware of T cells, another part of the immune system that fights COVID-19.

While Omicron is more contagious than other variants, there is no evidence yet to suggest that it is more likely to cause serious illness or death. It may turn out that through a massive infection, Omicron could bring us to a point where COVID-19 becomes more flu-like, a definite drag, and occasionally more serious than that, but not the level of crisis we saw with Delta, Fish. saying.

There are some reports in South Africa that Omicron causes mild symptoms, but they aren’t as helpful because that population is so different from Ontario, Morris said. South Africa’s population is younger and many people have already been infected with COVID-19.

Another big question mark is how serious Omicron will be for unvaccinated people, and even those twice vaccinated over 50, he added.

“It will probably overwhelm our testing system,” Morris said, adding that “most Ontarians” will likely become infected with Omicron at some point. “What we can do is try to be, as far as possible, protected.”

The good news is that while there is some emerging evidence that vaccines are not as good at protecting against Omicron infection, “they continue to hold up relatively well against severe outcomes,” even at two doses, said epidemiologist Dr. Peter Juni. and scientific director. from the Ontario COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Board.

But laboratory data and real-world data from the UK suggest that a third dose is “substantially better” than two, when it comes to Omicron, Morris added.

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We don’t need to go back to how we behaved at the beginning of the pandemic, but working from home whenever possible, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and large gatherings, and getting a third dose when it’s your turn will help, Juni said.

“If we now adapt our behavior immediately, we can help push this in the right direction, but it means that immediately, there is no delay, we cannot afford even days of delay,” he said.

Even if Omicron turns out to be milder than other variants, its sheer transmissibility could spell trouble for Ontario’s healthcare system, said Dionne Aleman, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto specializing in pandemic planning.

“Here in Canada and in Ontario in particular, we really have to worry about the use of beds in hospitals and ICUs because we really run on very narrow margins on those fronts,” he said.

If Omicron infects as many people as the model predicts, demand for ICU and hospital beds could outstrip supply, causing knock-on effects for the rest of the health care system, Aleman said.

If you plan to invite friends and family over to your home this holiday season, Aleman recommends that guests undergo rapid tests before entering to add an extra layer of protection.

“While rapid tests may not be perfect, if they detect 50 to 75 percent of infected people, but may not realize it yet, that could go a long way toward protecting your family members from infection. “, He said.

Lex Harvey is a Toronto-based newsletter producer for The Star and author of the First Up newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharvs

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