Omicron may peak in the next few weeks, Ontario's top doctor says, but the province is unlikely to see a full-blown reopening until COVID-19 cases plateau and pressures on the health-care system ease.
At a news conference Thursday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the peak in cases is likely to be followed by subsequent increases in hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
"It will be a difficult January but the sacrifices you are making now means a better February and a better March for all of us," Moore said.
Immunocompromised Ontarians will be able to receive fourth doses, starting Friday morning, as long as they are at least 84 days past third dose, Moore said.
Asked how likely it might be for businesses to return to usual operations on Jan. 26, Moore said, "We don't have great clarity yet."
"I can't guarantee the 26th. Please stay tuned," he said, adding reopening will be stage-by-stage to prevent a new spike in cases.
Moore added that he's looking for a plateau before reducing public health measures, which he said were just put in on Jan. 5. The pay-off of those measures in terms of reducing stresses on the health-care system should start to show up next week, he said.
Boosters 'absolutely essential'
Moore was also asked about the relatively high number of deaths in the past several days.
He replied that many of the deaths are likely in those who were sick with Delta, but said with the rapid spread of Omicron, even a small percentage of a large number of infections will result in a higher number of deaths.
Moore also said some of the deaths may be incidentally related to COVID-19 rather than caused by the virus, adding he's recently met with the province's chief coroner to discuss documenting deaths accordingly.
Moore stressed Ontarians need to continue getting their booster shots to keep hospitalization numbers at bay.
The chief medical officer of health was asked again Thursday whether the province would add COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of mandatory immunizations for school-aged children.
In response, he said the Immunization Students Pupils Act has never been a mandatory vaccination policy, but instead a mandatory reporting policy. Students aren't required to obtain vaccinations on the list but rather their vaccine status must be reported, he said.
However, on its website, the province says children "must be immunized against" things like polio, measles, mumps, rubella and meningitis, unless they have a valid medical, conscience or religious exemption.
New pandemic high in hospitalizations
Ontario reported a new high of 3,630 patients in hospital with COVID-19 on Thursday, which also marked the fourth straight day where the number of hospitalizations climbed.
Thursday's figure is a jump of over 1,000 from the same day last week when there were 2,279 people hospitalized with the virus.
Of those hospitalized with COVID-19, 54 per cent were admitted to hospital seeking treatment for COVID-19, while 46 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for the virus, according to data by the Ministry of Health. That data does not list a breakdown for previous waves of the virus for comparison.
As of Thursday, there are 500 people with COVID-19 in ICUs. That's a slight decrease from 505 patients the day before and an increase from 319 one week ago.
Approximately 82 per cent were admitted to the ICU seeking treatment for COVID-19 and 18 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for the illness, according to the dataset.
The seven-day rolling average of ICU admissions linked to COVID-19 now sits at 436.
COVID-19 patients in Ontario hospitals and ICUs
Ontario reported at least 9,909 new cases of the virus Thursday.
As the province 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 58,831 tests that were completed, Public Health Ontario reported a positivity rate of 21.4 per cent.
The health ministry also recorded the deaths of 35 more people with COVID-19, pushing Ontario's official toll to 10,480.
In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said that the 35 deaths occurred "over the span of 11 days" and were included in Thursday's figures due a data catch-up.
Meanwhile, public health units collectively administered another 164,160 doses of vaccines on Wednesday.
Roughly 82 per cent of Ontarians aged five and older have now received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 88 per cent have at least one dose, according to provincial data.
Chamber of Commerce calls for clarity
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce is calling on the provincial government to announce if businesses shuttered under the latest pandemic restrictions will be allowed to reopen on Jan. 26.
President and CEO Rocco Rossi said in a statement today that now that the province has said schools will return on Monday, it's time to provide clarity for businesses.
The government announced on Jan. 3 that due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant driving up COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, schools would move online until at least Jan. 17 and restrictions would be placed on businesses until at least Jan. 26.
Restaurants were ordered closed for indoor dining, museums, zoos and other such attractions were closed, as were gyms, indoor recreation facilities, cinemas and indoor concert venues, while retail settings and personal care services were capped at 50 per cent capacity.
Rossi said businesses, in particular small businesses, have suffered greatly over the last two years and need some certainty.
He said employers, workers and families need to be able to plan and see what metrics are guiding the government's decisions to impose and lift restrictions.