Ontario is delaying the start of school by two days to Wednesday, Jan. 5, as well as tightening access to PCR and rapid testing amid expected widespread community transmission of the Omicron variant.
In a news release issued Thursday, the province says it will provide N95 masks for staff in schools and licensed child care settings and deploy an additional 3,000 standalone HEPA filter units to school boards. The masks are not being provided for students, however.
Classes had been set to resume as early as Monday in much of the province, but critics called for clarity on the back-to-school plan in light of the spike in COVID-19 cases.
There will be several short-term measures implemented at schools, such as virtual-only school-wide assemblies and more cohorting at lunch and recess for elementary students, The Canadian Press reports. Only low-contact indoor sports and safe extra-curricular activities will be permitted starting in January.
The province also said in the release that it will further restrict capacity for large indoor venues starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
Province tightens access to PCR, rapid tests
Meanwhile, starting Friday, publicly funded PCR testing will be available only for symptomatic people in the following groups:
Patients in Emergency Departments
Patient-facing health-care workers
Staff, residents, care providers and visitors in hospitals and congregate living settings
Outpatients for whom COVID-19 treatment is being considered
Underhoused or people experiencing homelessness
Additionally, publicly funded PCR testing is available for Indigenous communities, symptomatic school staff and students, individuals transferring hospitals, and other high-risk contacts in the context of confirmed suspected outbreaks in high-risk settings like hospitals and congregrate living spaces.
Elementary and secondary students and staff who are symptomatic are still eligible for a PCR self-collection kit and can receive them through their schools, the province says.
You can read more about the province's new testing rules here.
The changes to testing eligibility also means the province will likely have to adjust how it measures new COVID-19 case counts going forward.
Infectious disease experts have said for several days that the actual number of new cases is likely far higher than those reported each day because many public health units in Ontario have reached their testing capacity.
Limiting tests to only higher-risk individuals means the gap between confirmed and actual cases will now grow even wider.
WATCH | Ontario will push back the return to school to Wednesday, Jan. 5:
Rapid tests being prioritized for high-risk settings
Rapid antigen tests are now also being prioritized for high-risk settings, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said at Thursday's news conference.
The province is hitting the 100,000 testing capacity, and given the high positivity rates, he says the virus is widespread in the community.
"We cannot at present test everyone who wants one. I'm sorry we don't have that capacity, we never actually did, nor does any country," Moore said.
"We must preserve these resources for those who need them the most," he said, saying the move is meant to ensure those at highest risk of severe outcomes have timely access to test results.
"These changes are not unique to Ontario."
Asked if the change to testing rules was a political move, Moore pushed back, saying the province would test everyone if it had the capacity.
"We have to pivot, we know there's ongoing community activity, we know we'll have transmission risk, that data has to focus to screen those who need treatment and to protect those in high-risk settings," Moore said.
He noted that he expects widespread community transmission of Omicron in the coming weeks.
"Almost a third to 40 per cent of tests that are positive across Ontario — well over 90 per cent of those are Omicron," Moore said.
Isolation guidelines updated
Meanwhile, the province is also updating its COVID-19 isolation guidelines.
Individuals who are fully vaccinated will be required to isolate for five days if they have symptoms of the virus, while those who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or immunocompromised will be required to isolate for 10 days.
The province has also updated its vaccine eligibility rules, effective immediately, for residents of long-term care homes, retirement homes, elder care lodges, and older adults living in congregate settings.
Individuals in these settings are eligible for a fourth vaccine dose if three months have passed since their third dose.
Canada's largest retail industry group is applauding Ontario's decision to shorten the isolation period for fully vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 as the surging Omicron variant intensifies staffing shortages.
The Retail Council of Canada says labour shortages have dogged retailers throughout the pandemic but the recent sharp rise in infections has left many scrambling to adjust schedules and keep their doors open.
Michelle Wasylyshen, the industry group's national spokesperson, says allowing employees to return to work sooner after they recover will ensure adequate staffing to maintain health and safety standards like frequent cleaning and enforcing mask mandates and capacity restrictions.
Positivity rate spikes to 30.5%
Meanwhile, Ontario reported a pandemic high of 13,807 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday — far outpacing the previous record set on Wednesday and ahead of an expected announcement from the province's chief medical officer of health.
Infectious disease experts have said the actual number of new cases is likely far higher than those reported each day because many public health units in Ontario have reached their testing capacity.
The seven-day average of daily cases has topped 10,000 for the first time in the province, and now stands at 10,328. It is on pace to double every five days or so.
Positivity rates similarly continued to spike. Public Health Ontario logged a 30.5 per cent positivity rate Thursday on 67,301 tests, the highest level ever seen in the province. The previous three days saw rates of 26.9, 24.9 and 24.5 per cent, respectively.
Ontario: New daily cases of COVID-19
As of Wednesday evening, there were 96,455 test samples in the backlog waiting to be completed — also a new pandemic high.
The number of patients with COVID-19 in hospitals climbed to 965, up from 726 on Wednesday and 440 at the same time last week.
There were also 200 people being treated for COVID-related illnesses in intensive care units, up from 169 last Thursday.
COVID-19 patients in Ontario hospitals and ICUs
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is working with hospitals to distinguish between patients admitted to hospitals and critical care because of COVID-19 and those who test positive while in care for other reasons. Daily data will soon reflect that distinction, she said.
The Health Ministry recorded the deaths of eight more people with the illness, pushing the official toll to 10,179.
Parents, staff still concerned about school spread
Despite Thursday's announcement, many parents and school staff remain concerned about the potential spread among students.
"The idea of opening schools right now, in the midst of the most contagious wave yet, is mind boggling," said Dan Lajoie, a guidance counsellor at a high school in Ottawa.
He says he knows of more than a dozen teachers with COVID-19 at the moment, a number that he says is only likely to increase.
"We should be following what other provinces are doing and delay for a week or two and allow educators time to pivot to online learning until this wave dies down," he said.
WATCH | Parents in Ontario frustrated by lack of information on school return:
Laura Jackson, whose four-year-old daughter is in junior kindergarten in South Mountain, Ont., just outside Ottawa, said she was surprised by the province's decision.
She says she's worried her daughter will catch the virus when she returns to school.
"I am fearful about how much we are going to have to isolate when there is COVID in the classroom," she said. "I am glad we have at least heard something though. The Thursday before is a bit ridiculous to be getting an update."
Hospitalization, death less likely with Omicron: study
A new study from Public Health Ontario suggests that Omicron is less likely to lead to hospitalization or death than the Delta variant, which drove the third wave in the province.
The agency identified 6,314 Omicron cases that saw symptoms emerge between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17, and matched them with Delta cases based on age, gender and onset date.
It found that after adjusting for vaccination status and region, the risk of hospitalization or death was 54 per cent lower in Omicron cases than Delta cases.
"Omicron appears to be the first dominant variant to demonstrate a decline in disease severity," the study said.
"While severity may be reduced, due to the transmissibility of Omicron, the absolute number of hospitalizations and impact on the healthcare system is likely to be significant."