Premier Doug Ford took the unusual step of publicly soliciting advice from medical experts, children’s hospitals and health organizations on how Ontario could go about reopening schools before the end of the academic year next month.
In a letter addressed to 55 different groups and people, Ford reiterated that his government has struggled to find consensus on school reopenings, and that it needs input before moving forward with a decision.
Why Ford waited until May 27, and gave the recipients until 5 p.m. Friday to answer, is unclear.
“In recent weeks, there has been a wide range of advice and commentary around the reopening of schools in Ontario,” Ford said in the letter.
“There is consensus in some quarters on how, when and whether schools should reopen, and diverse and conflicting views in others.”
He added that new modelling expected in the coming days will show that, if schools were to reopen, there could be between 2,000 and 4,000 more cases of COVID-19 by the end of July compared to if they remain closed.
Ford went on to once again express his concerns about virus variants of concern, particularly the variant first identified in India, and its impact on children. He also pointed to emerging evidence that suggests COVID-19 vaccines are potentially less effective against the variant found in India.
According to Ford, only 41 per cent of teachers and education workers have received a first dose of vaccine, compared to about 62 per cent of Ontario adults in the general population.
“Ultimately, this is our government’s decision, but in light of the foregoing, and the diversity of perspectives on the safety of reopening schools, I am asking for your views on a number of issues,” Ford said.
He then asked for input on seven questions:
- Is the reopening of schools for in-person learning safe for students?
- Is the reopening of schools for in-person learning safe for teachers and all education staff?
- There are a growing number of cases in Ontario of the variant first identified in India (B.1.617). Does this mutation pose an increased risk to students and education workers?
- The modelling from the Ontario Science Table has suggested that reopening schools will lead to an increase in cases in the province of Ontario, is this acceptable and safe?
- Other countries are warning mutations including the B.1.617 variant are putting children at much greater risk and are shutting schools down. Is this concern not shared by medical experts in Ontario?
- Should teachers be fully vaccinated before resuming in class lessons and if not, is one dose sufficient?
- Under Ontario’s reopening plan, indoor gatherings won’t commence until July. Should indoor school instruction resume before then?
Earlier this week, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health — who is also listed as a recipient of Ford’s letter — said he would like to see students back in class before the province begins its formal reopening process in mid-June.
Dr. David Williams said most public health units in the province support the reopening of schools, which have been shut to in-person learning since early April.
“My position has been always like our public health measures table and our medical officers of health, that feel that schools should be the last to close and the first to open,” Williams told a news conference on Tuesday. It was the same day that a group of researchers studying how the pandemic has affected children warned of a “generational catastrophe.”
Ford’s letter is just the latest in a series of COVID-related correspondences that his office has released publicly, covering a range of topics but particularly issues surrounding border policy.
Dr. David Fisman, a member of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table who has not hesitated to criticize the province’s handling of the pandemic in the past, said on Twitter that Ford’s letter was “spot on” in terms of the facts surrounding the issue.
“It is a very impressive articulation of the issues at hand and remarkably clear eyed and straightforward,” Fisman said.
1,135 new cases of COVID-19
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 1,135 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and the lowest provincewide test positivity rate in nearly 10 weeks.
Labs completed 37,705 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and Public Health Ontario logged a positivity rate of 3.6 per cent, a level not seen in the province since March 19.
The total cases reported today are considerably fewer than last Thursday, which saw 2,400 new confirmed infections. Because testing in Ontario generally follows a weekly cycle, it is usually most helpful to compare the same days of the week.
The rolling seven-day average of cases dropped again to 1,441, the lowest it has been since mid-March.
Another 2,302 infections were marked resolved in today’s update. There are now about 16,541 active cases provincewide. During the peak of the third wave in Ontario, there were nearly 43,000 active cases.
As of yesterday, there were 1,072 people with COVID-related illnesses in hospitals, 650 of whom were being treated in intensive care units. Of those, 452, or about 69.5 per cent, needed a ventilator to breathe.
According to Critical Care Services Ontario (CCSO), a government agency that does a daily tally of hospitalizations, 28 more COVID-19 patients were admitted to ICUs yesterday. The median stay for ICU patients has grown to nearly 20 days, up from around 11 at the beginning of May.
The Ministry of Health also recorded the deaths of 19 more people with COVID-19, pushing the official toll to 8,697.
Public health units collectively administered another 143,748 doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
Because more adolescents are receiving vaccines, and the province doesn’t provide an age breakdown of those who have received a shot, it’s difficult to say exactly what percentage of Ontario adults have gotten a first dose.
Using the province’s total population, about 53.8 per cent of Ontarians have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The government has said that having 60 per cent of all Ontario adults with a first shot is a key criterion for moving into the Phase 1 of its revised reopening plan.
Some AstraZeneca doses undergoing quality control
Some people who got a first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine and were eligible for a second this week have said they haven’t yet learned when they may actually get their next dose.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Minister of Health Christine Elliott said that 26,600 doses of AstraZeneca intended for second shots have been shipped to pharmacies and primary care providers so far.
The province previously said it had about 45,000 or so doses that will expire on May 31, and roughly 10,000 more that will expire in early June.
Holding up further shipments is a quality control process that was implemented because the province has incomplete data on how they were previously stored by pharmacies, doctors and public health units.
The process is meant to “ensure maximum safety and efficacy of every single dose,” the spokesperson said. “This is standard procedure and no dose will be sent that isn’t deemed to be safe.”
Meanwhile, the federal minister of public services and procurement said this morning that Moderna has confirmed its delivery schedule for Canada for next several weeks, with some two million doses expected to arrive by mid-June.
Based on a per capita allocation, that means about roughly 775,000 of those doses will go to Ontario.