Canada Letter: Covid Christmas, here again

Holiday plans for many Canadians hinged on having rapid tests at hand, or a booster dose in the arm.

Another Covid Christmas …

On Monday morning, the day Ontario expanded Covid-19 booster eligibility to everyone older than 18, I set out to get one through the provincial vaccine booking website.

I waited for more than an hour in the virtual queue for my turn to make an appointment, watching the site buffer as an animated stick figure moonwalked on the loading bar. But by the time I made it to the front of the line, there were no spots left.

Lining up for the Covid-19 vaccine booster shot at the Metro Toronto Convention Center on Wednesday.Cole Burston/Reuters

As Omicron cases exploded, holiday plans for many Canadians hinged on having free rapid tests at hand, or a booster dose in the arm. But a lot of unlucky people like me haven't been able to get either.

Across the country, Covid-19 case numbers have lit up public health dashboards. The spike in infections prompted surgery cancellations at hospitals in British Columbia, a lockdown in Nunavut, sweeping restrictions on businesses in Quebec, and renewed state of emergency orders in Nova Scotia. The federal government also issued a travel advisory, 10 days before Christmas. Holiday plans collapsed.

Except for Saskatchewan, provinces amended their guidelines for indoor personal gatherings. Most allow 10 visitors or one other household. Two Atlantic provinces, New Brunswick and Newfoundland, allow more based on personal bubble guidelines.

December went by like an Omicron advent calendar, each passing day revealing how the virus's trajectory would change hoped-for holiday plans.

It is a stark contrast to a year ago this week, when hopes were raised after Health Canada approved the Moderna vaccine, and later that month shipped the first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.

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This month, I spoke to Anita DeLongis, a health psychologist at the University of British Columbia who has studied the psychological effects of pandemics dating back to the SARS outbreak. At the time, she was gearing up to visit her daughter in Toronto over Christmas.

"This is kind of a moment when people are going to be very vulnerable to wanting to get together and ignoring the obvious risk data," she told me, less than two weeks after South Africa detected the new Omicron variant.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada at Scarborough Health Network Centenary Hospital in Toronto this month.Nick Lachance/Reuters

Cognitive impairment that is sometimes caused by depression means it can be difficult to make tough decisions, such as pushing back against social pressures.

"Your judgment becomes poor," Professor DeLongis said, rhyming off psychological stress factors that — when weighed against the uncertainty of the Omicron variant — might spell an uphill battle for public health officials relaying the risks of holiday gatherings. "To me, it seems like the perfect storm of a situation."

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Her own travel plans hinged on booster dose access. Not yet eligible for her third shot in British Columbia, Professor DeLongis canceled her flight to Toronto.

Even in provinces with expanded eligibility for booster shots, booster appointments are not widely available, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, where I live. On Wednesday, the local public health officer in my region went so far as to ask residents below the age of 50 to hold off on booking an appointment.

Time lapse videos and photos flooded in on social media, showing people lining up inside Ontario malls or outside provincially regulated liquor stores to pick up free rapid test kits, after the federal government said it would make another 35 million of them available across Canada.

"The queues that we see, car queues for people waiting in line to be tested, or people waiting in line to get home-test kits, that sort of thing, that's the tail of the elephant," Richard Larson, a professor and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me. He has earned the moniker "Dr. Queue" for his decades of study in the science of queuing.

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Lining up for a coronavirus antigen test kit in Ottawa on Tuesday.Blair Gable/Reuters

There's an invisible line that is far worse, and growing.

A Dec. 9 report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that about 560,000 fewer surgeries were performed, and 9,300 emergency visits dropped per day, during a 16-month period in the pandemic compared to 2019.

"We have a disastrous queuing situation where the amount of service demanded by the queue exceeds the capacity of the system to provide it," said Professor Larson. "We have a queuing system which is completely bursting."

Trans Canada

Buckhorn Lake on Curve Lake First Nation land earlier this month. The reserve was pivotal in bringing forward the civil suit for access to clean drinking water.Tara Walton for The New York Times
  • After decades of battling the government for access to clean drinking water on reserves, a group of Indigenous communities took the fight to the courtroom. This week, the courts approved a multibillion-dollar class action settlement to compensate First Nations and to compel Canada to take swifter action in cleaning up the contaminated water.
  • Space buffs are in for a treat on Christmas morning. The James Webb Space Telescope, a joint project between Canada's space agency, NASA and the European Space Agency, will be launched into orbit at 7:20 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday. Here's how to watch.
  • The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will be missing hockey stars like Auston Matthews, of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Connor McDavid, of the Edmonton Oilers, as the National Hockey League has said its players will not participate amid a rise in coronavirus cases. The Olympics begin on Feb. 4. The N.H.L. has also paused its season.
  • Rosalie Trombley, the former music director of a Windsor, Ontario, radio station, died at 82. She was called "the lady with the golden ear" in newspapers, and was credited with furthering the careers of artists like Alice Cooper, Bob Seger and the Temptations.

How are we doing?

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