TORONTO — Ontario is moving school classes online, pausing non-urgent surgeries and imposing widespread business closures as part of its bid to slow the spread of COVID-19 as the highly transmissible Omicron variant threatens health system capacity.
The return to remote learning represents an about-face for the government, which doubled down on a return to in-person schooling as recently as Dec. 30.
"We’re bracing for impact," Premier Doug Ford said, pointing to what he called a "tsunami" of Omicron cases that's anticipated to hit the overworked health system and keep people across all sectors from coming into work in the weeks ahead.
Ford announced the two-week school closure on Monday, days after his government said that kids would attend classes in person on Wednesday.
Monday's announcement also represented a policy reversal for hospitals that have spent recent months prioritizing resources to catch up on a vast backlog of procedures that were delayed during previous waves of infections.
But Ford pointed to projections from Ontario Health, which oversees the province's health system, showing the total number of patients in provincial hospitals would exceed capacity within a few weeks as Omicron is expected to tear through the population.
"These decisions will disappoint people, they will confuse some people and they will anger some people. I understand all those reactions," he said. "As Premier, these are the hardest decisions I make. But we follow the data."
Ford said recent numbers show that about one per cent of people infected with Omicron require hospitalization, but because the variant is so infectious, the sheer number of cases could still threaten to overwhelm the health system.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said more people are coming to hospitals for short stays, but the high number of admissions -- with 1,232 people hospitalized and 210 in intensive care due to COVID-19 as of Monday -- along with staff absences from virus infections call for stronger measures to preserve capacity.
Critics were quick to point out that the potential impact of the escalating Omicron situation was clear from other jurisdictions where the variant took hold earlier.
"Yet again, this government decided to take a 'wait-and-see' approach to see how bad it was going to get before they decided to take action," New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said, pointing to the hardships ahead for families, workers, small business owners and the health system.
"It's a horrifying situation, and it really did not have to be this way."
She also argued that better wages and support for health workers could have helped alleviate staffing pressures worsening the situation in hospitals.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused Ford of heightening families' anxieties by backtracking on the school decision. Others, including a coalition of childrens' hospitals, raised concerns about the mental health impact of another widespread school closure.
The union representing elementary school teachers said moving classes online temporarily is safer than the plan announced last week, and called for greater protective measures in schools to accommodate the return to class.
"We share the belief that in-person learning is the best and most equitable way for students to learn, but it must be safe," said Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
Toronto parent Lauren Bondar called the decision to delay in-person learning “so disheartening." She said previous school closures impacted her six-year-old son’s learning and development and forced her to scale back on her job to look after him.
"We're taking women out of the workforce," she said. "As a society we are just going back to a time that I never thought in our generation of adults we would be at."
She said she wants to see more safety measures in schools so kids and parents can benefit from in-person learning.
Ontario reported 13,578 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, two days after reporting a record-breaking daily tally of more than 18,000 cases. Public Health Ontario has said actual case counts are likely much higher due to policy changes that have made COVID-19 tests less accessible.
Ford said the decision to close schools, a move that would last at least two weeks, was taken because the province couldn't guarantee schools would be fully staffed with so many teachers expected to be off sick or exposed to the virus.
Other measures taking effect would be in place for at least 21 days and will be reassessed based on public health trends.
On Wednesday, the province’s chief medical officer is set to reinstate a directive ordering hospitals to pause all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries to preserve critical care capacity.
Elliott said the decision was made due to staffing pressures and the need for bed spaces in light of Omicron's growth across the province.
The chief executive officer of Ontario Health said the directive would affect between 8,000 and 10,000 procedures a week.
"It was a tough decision, a big cost, but something that is necessary given what we're seeing in the numbers," Matt Anderson said.
Indoor dining rooms, gyms and other indoor gathering spaces must close on Wednesday, while personal care services and retail stores will be limited to 50 per cent capacity and indoor social gatherings will be capped at five people.
Employers are asked to let employees work remotely "unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site."
The government said free child-care will be provided for frontline workers with school-aged children.
Also announced Monday was an expanded rebate program for businesses affected by the new slate of closures.
The government said certain businesses ordered to close will be reimbursed for 100 per cent of property tax and energy costs, and those that must reduce capacity to 50 per cent will receive a rebate payment for half those expenses.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2022.
- With files from Noushin Ziafati.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press