Ontario moves school online, pauses non-urgent procedures as part of new COVID-19 measures

Ontario moves school online, pauses non-urgent procedures as part of new COVID-19 measures-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a host of new public health measures Monday, nearly three weeks after the province’s science table warned that the Omicron variant could threaten the stability of the health-care system. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Ontario is moving schools online for at least two weeks, temporarily closing indoor dining and gyms and pausing non-urgent medical procedures as it faces record-high case counts that, according to public health officials, threaten to overwhelm the province’s health-care system.

Premier Doug Ford announced the changes at a morning news conference Monday. He was joined by his ministers of health, education and finance, as well Ontario’s chief medical officer of health and the CEO of Ontario Health.

The new restrictions are part of a modified version of Step Two of the province’s Roadmap to Reopen, which was first implemented earlier this year.

“Our public health experts tell us we could see hundreds of thousands of cases every day,” Ford said of the ongoing surge of new COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.

He said that this could mean hospitals end up thousands of beds short.

“If we don’t do everything possible to get this variant under control, the results could be catastrophic. It is a risk I cannot take.”

The province announced all publicly funded and private schools will move to remote learning starting Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 17.

The move comes after last Thursday’s announcement, when Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the return to school date would be pushed by two days to Wednesday but would still be in-person. Moore said the province wanted to give schools extra time to provide N95 masks to staff and to deploy 3,000 HEPA filter units.

Though they were asked repeatedly by reporters on Monday, provincial officials did not provide a list of any other specific steps they plan to take in order to ensure a safe return to school on Jan. 17.

Indoor dining closed, new capacity limits

The new restrictions announced today also include:

  • Indoor dining at restaurants and bars closed.
  • Only outdoor dining, takeout, drive through and delivery permitted.
  • Social gathering limits reduced to five people indoors and 10 people outdoors.
  • Retail stores, malls, public libraries and personal care services limited to 50 per cent capacity.
  • Saunas, steam rooms and oxygen bars closed.
  • Capacity at weddings, funerals and religious services limited to 50 per cent capacity per room.
  • Outdoor services must have two-metre distancing between all attendees.
  • Employees must work remotely unless their work requires them to be on site.
  • Gyms and other indoor recreational sport facilities closed, except athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and certain professional and elite sports leagues.
  • Outdoor facilities are permitted but with a 50 per cent capacity limit on spectators.
  • Museums, galleries, zoos, science centres, historic sites, amusement parks, festivals and other attractions closed.
  • Outdoor establishments allowed with restrictions and capacity limits.
  • Indoor meeting and event spaces closed with limited exceptions, except those with outdoor spaces, which can operate with restrictions.

The new measures will come into effect on Wednesday, Jan. 5 at 12:01 a.m.

New modelling from Public Health Ontario shows that the Omicron variant could eventually overwhelm the entire health system.

The projections suggest hospitalizations could peak by the end of this month, but health officials noted that tightened public health measures will blunt the rate of Omicron’s spread.

Non-urgent surgeries paused

As part of the modified step two of the province’s re-opening plan, Moore reinstated a directive ordering hospitals to pause all non-urgent surgeries and procedures in order to preserve critical care capacity.

Between 1,200 and 1,500 additional beds have been designated to provide care to patients with Omicron, Moore said.

“We anticipate through the modelling that those 1,200 to 1,500 beds will be essential to be able to provide oxygen and care,” he said.

Moore noted that the number of hospitalizations will dictate when restrictions can be relaxed.

The “tsunami” of Omicron cases is expected to result in 20 to 30 per cent absenteeism for employees in all sectors across Ontario in the coming weeks, he said.

Ahead of the news conference, Ontario reported another 13,578 new cases of COVID-19. That followed 16,714 cases on Sunday and a pandemic-high 18,445 cases on Saturday.

Public Health Ontario has warned recently that daily case counts are “an underestimate” given changes to testing eligibility and Omicron’s quick spread.

Omicron cases surge

Ontario discovered its first case of the Omicron variant on Nov. 28, just days after South African researchers alerted the world to its existence. Around three weeks later, Omicron became the dominant variant, making up the majority of new daily infections in the province.

On Dec. 16, Ontario’s COVID-19 science table called for “circuit breaker” restrictions to combat the rapid spread of Omicron and avoid ICU admissions reaching “unsustainable levels” by early January.

In response, Ontario reintroduced capacity limits at restaurants, bars and retailers on Dec. 19, capping most at 50 per cent. It also mandated they close at 11 p.m., imposed limits on the sale of alcohol and limited private indoor gatherings to 10 people.

Some limits were also placed on sports and extracurricular activities, and capacity restrictions on large venues were also imposed.

But some experts warned even those measures weren’t strong enough to curb “out of control” transmission of the virus.

Hospitalizations, ICU admissions rising

While a more comprehensive provincial update is expected Tuesday, below are some key pandemic indicators and figures provided by Health Minister Christine Elliott Monday morning.

The number of people with COVID-19 in ICUs across the province rose to 248 on Monday from 224 on Sunday and 214 on Saturday. The seven-day average currently sits at 210.

In total, there are 1,232 people hospitalized with COVID-19, although Elliott noted that not all hospitals report on weekends.

More than 89,000 doses of vaccine were administered on Sunday, Elliott said, and to date, 27,422,363 doses have been administered in Ontario. Nearly 91 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 or older have received one dose of a vaccine, while more than 88 per cent have received two doses.

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