Ontario is reviewing measures to protect residents in the wake of a newly discovered COVID-19 variant of concern in the province, chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said.
Included in that review is the possible acceleration of the province’s third dose vaccine strategy, Moore said at a news conference on Monday.
“We will be reviewing options and providing them to government in the next few days, and I would anticipate an announcement by the end of this week on an enhanced strategy to best protect Ontarians,” he said.
On Sunday, the province confirmed two cases of the new variant called omicron in Ottawa, both of which were reported in people who had recently travelled to the province from Nigeria. Ontario is also investigating four more possible cases, including two in the Hamilton area and two more in Ottawa.
Moore said while the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine against the omicron variant is not yet known, the vaccine “is very effective against the delta variant.”
Moore also pointed to “a slight uptick in the number of cases” in intensive care units in Ontario, saying the province remains focused on that on the present threat, which is delta.
“We know the vaccine is very effective. We know two doses prevent admission to hospital at a very protective rate … and the third dose would only continue to protect Ontarians,” Moore said.
“So, that is absolutely one strategy we will be reviewing and presenting to government this week. You can you can anticipate potential acceleration of our third dose strategy.”
In a statement issued Monday, Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner called on the province to immediately expand booster eligibility to all Ontarians aged 40 and older.
“[Doug] Ford needs to take all the necessary public health measures to protect Ontarians,” he said.
Those presently eligible for a booster dose in Ontario are people aged 70 and older, health-care workers or essential caregivers in congregate settings, people who received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine or one dose of Janssen, and First Nations, Inuit and Metis adults and their non-Indigenous household members.
Province can manage any potential outbreak, MOH says
Meanwhile, Moore said the province has the infrastructure in place to manage any potential outbreak linked to the new variant.
He said the two people who tested positive for it remain in isolation, and the situation is being monitored very closely by both the Public Health Agency of Canada and Ottawa Public Health.
“We are investigating other cases, so I would not be surprised if we find more in Ontario because we’ve got a very robust surveillance system,” Moore said.
The new variant was first detected in South Africa, and has been linked to a spike in cases there. Cases involving the omicron variant have already been confirmed on multiple continents, with Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong all reporting cases in recent days.
Moore said public health units are also reaching out to 375 people who have returned from countries deemed by the federal government to be high risk for the variant and are offering them testing.
“As you realize, this is a rapidly changing environment. Lots of questions yet about this new strain that we have to have answers for,” Moore said.
“We need to understand if this is a virulent infection, if it makes people significantly sick or leads them to hospitalization. We really don’t have that information yet.”
Moore said Ontario is pushing for enhanced testing for people returning from abroad.
“We really do need enhanced testing of returning travellers,” he said.
The federal government on Friday barred visitors from seven southern African countries in an effort to prevent the variant from crossing into Canada, but Nigeria was not among them.
The province has called on Ottawa to implement point-of-arrival COVID-19 testing for everyone entering Canada regardless of where they came from, instead of just requiring them to get tested before leaving for Canada.
788 new cases reported on Monday
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 788 cases of COVID-19 on Monday,which is a decrease from the previous day, when the province reported its highest case count in nearly six months.
Of those cases, 439 were found in people who are not fully vaccinated against the virus, while 34 were in people whose vaccination status is unknown, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott.
Two more people with the virus have died, and an additional death that occurred more than a month ago was added to Monday’s total after a data cleanup, the province says.
Additionally, the government is reporting 145 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized, with 148 people in an intensive care unit (ICU) — though it is important to note that not all of the province’s hospitals report numbers on weekends. The hospitalization number also only counts people currently testing positive, while the ICU number includes people who are no longer testing positive.
The seven-day average, which helps smooth out peaks and valleys in the data, rose slightly from the weekend and now stands at 784, its highest point since June 6.