As COVID-19 cases rise, the province is making some big changes, and briefly pausing the school year.
Students will return to class on Wednesday, January 5 - rather than Monday, January 3. During the two day delay, the province will be working to get N95 masks to teachers and HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorbing) filters to classrooms all over the province, as Ontario faces a massive wave of Omicron variant cases.
There were more than 13,000 cases reported on Thursday.
"The good news is, with this increase in cases, we have not seen a corresponding rapid increase in hospitalizations and ICU admissions," said Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore. "Today we're reporting 965 people in hospital and 200 people in ICU due to COVID-related critical illness. This is thanks to the effectiveness of the vaccines."
"It is also because Omicron is different from other variants. Preliminary findings from Public Health Ontario suggest Omicron is the first dominant variant to demonstrate a decline in disease severity," Moore said. "The risk of hospitalization or death was 54 per cent lower for Omicron cases than Delta cases."
However, Moore remains concerned about the strain on the province's healthcare system. Testing is now only available to those who are immunocompromised or who work in vulnerable settings like long-term care homes, schools, or health care settings. Effective December 31, publicly-funded PCR testing will be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic and/or are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including for the purposes of confirming a COVID-19 diagnosis to begin treatment, and workers and residents in the highest risk settings, as well as vulnerable populations. Members of the general public with mild symptoms are asked not to seek testing.
"We must preserve these resources for those who need them the most," Moore said about testing, which he noted was an issue all over the world. "We must, together, protect this limited resource."
The province is also changing isolation rules for those who are exposed to somebody with COVID-19, and those who have symptoms. The new rules will be available on the province's website. The isolation period for vaccinated individuals and kids under 12 is now five days, Moore said. Symptoms must be resolved or improving for at least 24 hours before isolation ends.
Exposure rules also changing. People in the province are now being asked to monitor for symptoms, rather than isolating if you're exposed to a COVID positive person who you don't live with. You're then asked to isolate if symptoms develop.
"I know today’s announcements from Premier Doug Ford’s government are really worrying for people. I’m urging Mr. Ford to immediately reverse his decision to restrict testing, and to increase protections against COVID instead — especially in our children’s schools," said Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath in a statement. "This looks like Doug Ford is surrendering Ontario to COVID — throwing in the towel."
"Mr. Ford should be protecting us from COVID, not marching us into exponential spread with his eyes wide open," she added.
Moore said the province will be improving safety measures in the time before schools re-open next week.
"This will provide our schools with extra time to begin to put in place additional health and safety measures including deploying additional masking options for students and educators, and further improving air ventilation in schools. These and other measures, including updating the COVID-19 school and childcare screener, and asking students, parents and staff for rigorous screening and monitoring of symptoms, creates more layers of protection to keep schools safe and open for in-person learning," Moore said.
The announcement comes on the heels of nearly two weeks of speculation about what would happen when the holiday break comes to a close. On December 17th, Premier Doug Ford said "no decision" had been made on school openings, leaving parents and students in limbo ever since.
"Omicron has presented us with new challenges and we've had to be flexible and adaptive in the face of this new variant," said Moore. "I'm hopeful that with the effort we are putting in now, 2022 will be a year we are able to get the better of this virus."