Ontario reported 916 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the fewest on a single day since mid-February, as Ontario Premier Doug Ford said an announcement on the remainder of the school year is coming in the "next day or two."
Speaking at Queen's Park on Monday morning, Ford said his government is reviewing responses to a letter sent last Thursday that solicited advice from a range of expert groups, public health officials, teachers unions' and other stakeholders.
The letter stressed that no firm consensus had emerged on whether to reopen the province's school for several weeks in June and sought guidance on a number of key issues, including the risks posed by COVID-19 variants of concern.
Ford's comments came as his government is poised to table a motion that would see a new top public health official in the province.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said on the weekend that the province is moving to replace Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, with Dr. Kieran Moore.
Williams had been slated to retire in September, after his initial term was extended amid the pandemic, but his last day has been pushed up by several months.
Moore currently serves as the top doctor at the Kingston-area public health unit, and is expected to take over from Williams on June 26.
Moore will start working with Williams on June 7 to ensure a smooth transition, the government said.
Today's additional cases are the fewest confirmed on a single day in Ontario since February 17.
Labs completed 18,226 tests and Public Health Ontario logged a positivity rate of 4.3 per cent, the lowest reported on a Monday since March 15.
The seven-day average of daily cases fell to 1,078.
Monday is the first day since March 6 that the province has reported fewer than 1,000 daily new cases.
As of yesterday, there were 617 patients with COVID-related illnesses being treated in intensive care units. Of those, 382, or about 62 per cent, needed a ventilator to breathe. According to Critical Care Services Ontario, the median stay for COVID-19 patients in critical care is about 21.5 days.
Some patients in ICUs with COVID-19 are Manitobans. The province said the number of Ontario residents in ICUs is actually 593.
The Ministry of Health also recorded the deaths of 13 more people with COVID-19, pushing the official toll to 8,757. The seven-day average of deaths stands at just over 19.
Meanwhile, public health units collectively administered another 97,747 doses of vaccines on Sunday. More than 8.3 million Ontarians, or about 56.8 per cent of the province's total population, have now had at least one dose.
Some vaccine bookings moved up
Many Ontarians aged 80 and older became eligible to book their second COVID-19 vaccine doses on Monday, though some regions said a lack of supply meant they couldn't offer second shots to the oldest seniors right away.
The government announced last week that it was shortening the intervals between doses, starting with the 80 and older cohort this week, but left it up to individuals to schedule earlier shots.
Some said they were able to quickly move up appointments for their loved ones on Monday morning.
Karthik Kanagas said he was able to move his father's second-dose up to Wednesday — far earlier than the original appointment booked for July at a Toronto clinic.
"He's incredibly relieved," Kanagas said. "He's looking forward to having a little bit of freedom of mobility again, to go grocery shopping and do those little things."
The government has been criticized for not having a plan to contact recipients directly to move up second doses. Residents will keep their original second-dose appointments — four months from the first — if they don't book an earlier shot.
Some health units said, however, that they wouldn't be able to immediately offer earlier second doses to the 80 and older cohort due to vaccine supply challenges.
The Middlesex-London Health Unit reported it would offer earlier second shots to that group starting June 7, or possibly sooner, as it continues to prioritize first shots.
"The province indicated those 80 years of age and older could begin rescheduling their second dose appointments as early as this morning, given that some health units have more vaccine supply than needed for those seeking first doses in their areas," it said.
"That is not the case in Middlesex and London, where most vaccine appointments continue to be first doses."
The health unit covering Sudbury, Ont., said second shots for the oldest seniors would likely become available the week of June 28, based on known supply and plans to prioritize youth for first shots in the coming weeks.
"I thank everyone for your ongoing patience and understanding," Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, the region's top doctor, said in a statement. "Some may have to wait a little bit longer for their second dose as public health ensures first doses are in arms and second doses are provided to those in previously announced groups."
The shortened dose interval is part of the government's plan to fully vaccinate all willing adults by the end of August.
Those 70 and older will see their interval shortened in mid-June, and after that, residents will become eligible for second doses based on when they received their first shot.
At a provincial news briefing, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, said the daily COVID-19 numbers continue to move in the right direction.
She announced that nine million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Ontario.
"As we see our daily case numbers, rates and hospitalizations decreasing, our immunizations continue to increase," Yaffe told reporters.
"This is a tremendous milestone. Every person vaccinated makes us all a little safer," she said.
Yaffe noted that Ontario averaged 2,197 daily new cases in May, an improvement over the average in April, which was 3,782.
At the end of her remarks, Yaffe thanked Williams for his public service to Ontario and congratulated him on his impending retirement.
"He was worked tirelessly over these last 16 months, guiding us through this pandemic, and he has dedicated his entire career to the service of others," she said.
"Dr. Williams has shouldered a heavy load and he has done so with integrity and compassion."
Ontario to require LTC homes to have vaccination policies
Also Monday, Ontario announced a policy making it mandatory for staff in long-term care homes to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination, documentation of a medical reason not to be vaccinated, or to participate in an educational program about vaccination.
Homes will be required to track and report on the progress of their COVID-19 immunization policies. Immunization status of individual staff members will not be shared with the province.
Yaffe said the policy is important in a sector that saw thousands of deaths and infections from COVID-19. She said such policies might be applied to other jobs later on.
In a news release on Monday, Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, long-term care minister, said Ontario is the first province in Canada to make it mandatory for homes to have COVID-19 immunization policies for staff and to set out the minimum requirements that need to be included in the policies.
"Widespread vaccination within long-term care homes is the best way to protect residents, staff and their families," Fullerton said in the release.
"We want to build on the success of our long-term care vaccination campaign to date."
Wendy Lampert, spokesperson for the long-term care ministry, said in an email on Monday night that the purpose of the directive is to "optimize" vaccination rates in long-term care homes and to ensure that staff have access to information required to make informed decisions about vaccination.
If a staff member, student placement, or volunteer objects to vaccination for any reason, including religious grounds, the licensee of the long-term care home must ensure that the person participates in a vaccination educational program, she added.
Ontario workers at Nunavut mine warned of exposure
Meanwhile, a large COVID-19 outbreak at the Mary River mine site run by the Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation in Nunavut has implications for workers from Ontario who may have been exposed, according to the province. The outbreak involves the variant of concern first identified in India, the B1617.
The fly-in site has 1,000 workers, of which 300 were from Ontario. There were more than 120 cases identified. Worker go into the site for a few weeks, go home and then come back.
Yaffe said anyone who has returned to Ontario from the mine since April 30 is considered a high-risk contact based on potential exposure to COVID-19. The workers are urged to self-isolate immediately and contact their local public health unit.
She said workers from Ontario returned to 33 out of 34 public health units in the province and many have reported cases due to the outbreak.