Ontario Premier Doug Ford is expected to make an announcement about COVID-19 booster doses Wednesday as the province’s chief medical officer of health recommends that the government adopt consistent, provincewide measures to deal with the Omicron variant.
CBC News has learned of the booster announcement on background from a government official. The exact nature of the announcement was unclear, but the official also said that Ford’s cabinet will meet Wednesday to discuss dramatically expanding Ontario’s capacity for administering third doses.
At a news conference Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said he will be recommending provincewide measures to the Ford government in the coming days to help combat the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The current regional approach to public health restrictions was designed with the delta variant in mind, Moore said, and Omicron — which appears to be highly transmissible and is infecting vaccinated people — poses new risks.
“Omicron is becoming a game-changer for all of us,” he said. “I’d want to have a consistent approach across Ontario,” Moore said.
He said an announcement will come later this week, with health officials reviewing restrictions such as maximum group sizes for gatherings and best practices in schools.
“We’ve been meeting with our public health colleagues, our public health measures table, and are bringing recommendations to government to have a more consistent approach across all of Ontario heading into Omicron,” said Moore.
The recommendations and the announcement on boosters expected from Ford come as the province tightens rules at long-term care centres and retirement homes and increases its capacity to vaccinate people against COVID-19 in anticipation of a potential surge in cases caused by the variant.
Moore said each omicron case is infecting four to eight times more people than the delta variant, although it’s still unclear whether or not it causes more severe illness.
“Even if it is less severe, with so many people infected, there may be significant demands on the health-care system,” Moore said. “Although our vaccines appear to be less effective against transmission of Omicron, evidence is showing us that they still likely provide strong protection against severe illness, especially with a booster dose.”
Moore encouraged anyone who is eligible for a third dose or booster shot to get one and said hospitals, public health units and pharmacies are all ramping up their ability to vaccinate.
New long-term care measures
Moore’s comments followed a news release from the Ministry of Long-Term Care announcing enhanced COVID-19 testing and vaccination measures for residents, staff and visitors of long-term care and retirement homes.
Starting today, all general visitors will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter a long-term care home.
“Our priority is to protect long-term care residents from COVID-19,” Minister of Long-Term Care Rod Phillips said in the release. “These further measures build on the ones already taken, including mandatory vaccinations, priority for third doses, and randomized testing, [which] will provide the best level of protection possible.”
As of Dec. 17, all staff, caregivers, volunteers and students working in long-term care facilities will be tested twice weekly, regardless of vaccination status. Support workers and visitors who provide essential services to residents will need to test negative for COVID-19 in order to enter.
Caregivers will be required to be vaccinated to enter a home, with the exception of those seeing a dying resident or those who have a medically valid exemption. Caregivers who are unvaccinated will need to get a first dose by Dec. 20, the Ministry of Long-Term Care says, and a second by Feb. 21, 2022.
In the meantime, caregivers who aren’t fully vaccinated are restricted to the room of the resident they are going to see.
Furthermore, indoor visits will be limited to two guests or caregivers. Outdoor visits can involve up to four guests or caregivers at a time.
Cohorting will be implemented for dining and higher-risk activities such as singing and dancing, according to the ministry.
Only residents who have had two shots of vaccine will be permitted to take day absences for social purposes, while overnight absences for social purposes will be prohibited, the ministry said. Anyone who does leave the premises for a visit must be actively screened upon returning.
Retirement home measures
The new measures for retirement homes will take effect on Dec. 22.
Starting that day, staff, volunteers, contractors and essential caregivers will need to take rapid tests twice weekly. General visitors and support workers will also need to take rapid tests before they enter a home.
The ministry is strongly encouraging retirement homes to restrict visitors to only those who are fully vaccinated, and develop “additional requirements” for unvaccinated and not fully vaccinated visitors.
Homes are also being encouraged to limit visitors and group sizes for all social activities and events, as well as test people when they return from overnight trips outside the homes.
Omicron becoming dominant variant
Meanwhile, Ontario reported 1,429 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday.
Today’s total is a 54 per cent increase over last Tuesday.
The seven-day average of new daily cases has risen to 1,400, about 44 per cent higher than the same time last week.
Peter Jüni, scientific director of the Ontario Science Table, told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning that Omicron, first confirmed in Ontario just more than two weeks ago, will likely replace delta as the variant responsible for the majority of new cases some time today or tomorrow.
Omicron has a doubling time of roughly three days, far faster than any previous variants.
“If this doubles every three days or so, case numbers can become very high very swiftly,” Jüni said.
The key to curbing the expected “tidal wave” in Omicron cases will be ramping up capacity for booster shots in the province, Jüni said. The current supply of doses is not the problem, Jüni added, but rather the number of people and venues available for a renewed mass immunization campaign.
Ideally, public health units would collectively be administering at least 100,000 booster doses every day for “quite a long time,” Jüni said. He noted that Ontario was doing about 250,000 shots per day at the peak of its earlier vaccination campaign last summer.
Yesterday, 85,245 third doses were administered across the province. Ontarians aged 50 and older who received their second shot at least six months ago became eligible for booster doses on Monday. Eligibility is set to open up to all adults on Jan. 4 but the province’s top doctor has said the schedule could move faster if capacity allows.
In a tweet late Monday, the president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association said that hospitals are “moving to implement instructions to urgently re-activate mass vaccination programs.
“This will have a major impact on other clinical services, but there’s no other choice … This is truly a race against time,” Anthony Dale said.
Even with an immediate increase in vaccination capacity, Jüni said, there is not enough time to reach optimal coverage levels before the holiday season begins in earnest.
Jüni said he supports a temporary reintroduction of targeted public health measures to reduce social contacts in the face of the Omicron surge. Specifically, a reduction in capacity for indoor dining and major sports venues is needed, he said.
“I think we need those structural measures,” he told guest host Jason D’Souza, adding that Ontarians should plan to keep holiday gatherings “intimate” if there is any hope of containing the uptick in cases.
Some public health units have already chosen to impose renewed restrictions and offer revised guidance in recent days.
Peterborough is the latest region to instruct workplaces to have all non-essential staff to work from home if possible, as part of new measures set to take effect on Wednesday.
The new rules also require restaurants to ensure tables are at least two metres apart or separated by a barrier, and to set a cap on the number of patrons at each table.
Test positivity rates spiking
While cases are rising across most of the province, so too is the number of COVID patients requiring hospital care, albeit much more slowly. That said, the overall burden of COVID on intensive care units has remained relatively stable thus far.
As of Monday evening, there were 162 patients being treated for COVID-related illnesses in ICUs, according to the health ministry. Of those, 98 needed help from a ventilator to breathe.
Moreover, Public Health Ontario this morning reported a 6.6 per cent positivity rate on 33,400 tests for the virus. That’s the highest on a given day since May 18, amid the depths of the third wave in the province.
The Ministry of Health also recorded the deaths of five more people with COVID, pushing the official toll to 10,084.