Ontario announced Thursday it is accelerating booster shots for education workers as well as providing N95 masks to those working in child-care settings, as well as changing the rules around who is eligible for a rapid antigen test.
Starting Friday, education and child-care staff in the Greater Toronto Area can book priority shots at the International Centre in Mississauga. The province says further clinics will be set up "urgently" across on Ontario, in addition to existing clinics in Toronto and Ottawa that already have dedicated access for these staff.
Premier Doug Ford announced Monday that schools would go back online for at least two weeks due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. Child-care centres have remained open, even though the children who attend them no longer qualify for tests if they get sick.
The province also provided an update Thursday about how it will deploy more rapid antigen tests that are set to soon arrive from the federal government.
You can read more about the province's new rapid test rules here.
At a news conference Thursday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should assume they are infected and should self-isolate.
"Testing is a luxury," he said, adding there is a global shortage of rapid tests.
Hospitalizations, ICU admissions climb
Meanwhile, hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care of Ontarians with COVID-19 both climbed again
There were 2,279 people with the illness in hospitals, up from 2,081 the day before and a 136 per cent increase from the same time last week. The pandemic high of 2,360 hospitalizations came on April 20, 2021.
Similarly, there were 319 people with COVID-19 in ICUs. That's up from 288 patients the day before and 119 more than last Thursday, when 200 needed intensive care. According to Critical Care Services Ontario, 53 more adults were admitted to ICUs on Wednesday.
The province has said it will soon begin publishing data that differentiates between patients admitted to hospital due to COVID-19, and those who test positive for the virus while in hospital for unrelated reasons. The Ministry of Health told CBC News late Wednesday that data collection from hospitals for this initiative began last week and that the public reporting will "likely start in the near future."
COVID-19 patients in Ontario hospitals and ICUs
The health ministry also recorded the deaths of 20 more people with COVID-19, the most on a single day since June, 2021. Ontario's official death toll now stands at 10,272. Toronto Public Health confirmed this morning that a child under the age of four had recently died with COVID-19 in the city.
The province reported at least 13,339 new cases of COVID-19 today. As Ontario recently changed its guidelines to significantly limit who qualifies for a PCR test, the case total for today is likely a drastic undercount of the real situation. Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table estimates that roughly one in five cases are currently being confirmed by the province's testing regime.
For the 59,241 tests that were completed, Public Health Ontario reported a positivity rate of 29.2 per cent. It is the ninth straight day positivity rates have been higher than 25 per cent. Nearly 100,000 more test samples are in the backlog waiting to be completed.
According to Ontario's long-term care minister, outbreaks of COVID-19 are hitting homes in almost all public health units, with staff absences of between 20 and 30 per cent in some areas. Rod Phillips said there are currently outbreaks reported in 186 homes in 30 of the province's 34 public health units.
He said he expects the number will continue to rise with the highly contagious Omicron variant spreading in communities at record levels.
Staff absence rates range from 20 to 30 per cent in some of the hardest-hit areas and the ministry is in contact daily with homes that are struggling, he added.
According to Public Health Ontario data, there are also outbreaks in 118 retirement homes, 110 hospitals — by far a pandemic high — and 178 education and child-care settings.
Hospitals urge pregnant Ontarians to get vaccinated
A group of Ontario hospitals is urging anyone who is pregnant to get vaccinated against COVID-19, citing recent infant hospitalizations due to the disease.
Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, McMaster Children's Hospital, CHEO, the children's hospital for the Ottawa area, and Kingston Health Sciences Centre made a joint statement on the issue Wednesday.
"No one wants their little one to be sick in hospital, let alone for COVID-19," the statement said. "For this reason, as well as for the health of the pregnant individual, we are encouraging anyone who is pregnant and eligible for vaccination — as well as all eligible members in their household — to get vaccinated."
The group said six babies younger than 12 months have been admitted to Hamilton and Ottawa facilities because of COVID-19 since the middle of December.
"Previous to that, it was a rare occurrence that an infant was hospitalized for COVID-19 infection," the statement said.
All infants admitted to CHEO in Ottawa had unvaccinated mothers, the statement said.
The group of hospitals said infants' immune systems have difficulty fighting disease especially without maternal antibodies transferred during pregnancy from vaccination.
Their statement cited research out of the Ottawa children's hospital that has shown no adverse pregnancy outcomes in Ontario from COVID-19 vaccines. Despite that, the group said vaccination coverage has remained lower among pregnant people than the general population.
"We strongly support ongoing efforts to better understand the reasons why some pregnant individuals are not being vaccinated; this could help inform approaches for education that are tailored to the needs of specific communities," the statement added. It also said pregnant people should reach out to health-care providers with questions or concerns about vaccination.
The call from hospitals came as the highly contagious Omicron variant prompted stricter provincewide public health measures aimed at slowing down infection and hospitalizations.
Officials have said the unprecedented number of infections is causing staff shortages in key industries including healthcare. But public health has acknowledged that the full picture of the virus' spread is not known because tests are now being restricted to those considered at high risk from an infection.
Two children under the age of five have died from COVID-19 in Ontario within the past three weeks, according to the latest provincial data. It also shows that 38 Ontario children in the same age range have been hospitalized from the virus over the same period.
Children younger than five are the only age group currently not eligible to for COVID-19 vaccination.
Vaccinations for children between the ages of five and 11 began in November. As of Wednesday, that demographic had the lowest vaccination rate in the province, with 44.5 per cent having received first doses and two per cent with both shots.