Ontario's regional public health officials are asking the province to prioritize opening schools before other public health restrictions are lifted.
The chair of the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health has written to the provincial health and education ministers, asking for deployment of extra measures including getting children back into classrooms.
Dr. Paul Roumeliotis' Friday letter says the council considers it both possible and imperative to open schools before other sectors.
The letter cites guidance from Toronto's SickKids hospital, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and observations from local public health units.
Schools in several southern Ontario regions with high infection rates have been closed through January, with the province staggering reopenings in rural and northern areas that have fewer cases.
Ontario's top doctor said Friday that schools in some regions may stay online until rapid COVID-19 tests can be deployed.
The province reported 2,063 new cases of COVID-19 and 73 more deaths on Saturday.
Meanwhile, a public health physician called a small spike in COVID-19 cases in northwestern Ontario Indigenous communities a "wake-up call" for the area.
Dr. John Guilfoyle with the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority said Saturday that eight total active cases recently detected across five First Nations communities -- Poplar Hill, Webequie, Pikangikum, Lac Seul and Nibinamik -- appear to have been contained, according to contact tracing and testing so far.
Guilfoyle described the containment as good news, but said the situation is a reminder that taking precautions is more important than ever, especially given that cases were reported in four communities in a single day this week.
"This is really a wake-up call that the virus is close to our communities," Guilfoyle said in a Saturday video update.
"To get cases in four communities in one day is absolutely new, and this is a pattern we don't want to see repeated."
He reminded people to stick to essential travel and continue following public health guidance by physically distancing from one another, wearing masks and staying within social bubbles. He noted such measures are more important than ever as a new and potentially more infections virus variant emerges in the province.
The variant known as B.1.1.7 that first emerged in the U.K. last year has been detected in health units across the province since it was first discovered in the Toronto area just over a month ago. Provincial health officials have said current research suggests the new strain is more infectious and potentially causes more severe illness.
As of Saturday, the province had confirmed 57 cases of the U.K. variant, with infections reported in new regions including Halton and Waterloo.
Public health officials in the Kingston, Ont., and Barrie, Ont., areas have said they suspect the actual number of U.K. variant cases is higher than the confirmed total.
In Barrie, an outbreak driven by the variant that began in a long-term care home has since infected well over 200 people. The region's top doctor said this week he's confident every case in the outbreak is the U.K. strain.
Ontario reported a provincewide total of 2,063 additional cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, and 73 more deaths linked to the virus.
Of 1,273 people hospitalized as of Saturday, the province said 353 patients were in intensive care and 216 were on ventilators.
The province reported 9,373 COVID-19 vaccine doses administered Friday, for a total of 336,828 across the province.
Guilfoyle also spoke to the importance of inoculations on Saturday, as the Sioux Lookout area prepares to roll out vaccine deliveries in several communities next week.
"The vaccination is key, it will protect you," he said. "It is a lot better to get the vaccine than it is to get COVID."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press