Ontario is considering wider eligibility for second COVID-19 booster shots, but no new public health restrictions are planned as the province rides another surge in cases, says Health Minister Christine Elliott.
“It doesn’t appear necessary that we need to take any further precautions,” Elliott told reporters Thursday at North York General Hospital as the province reported new COVID-19 infections are up 22 per cent over the last seven days.
The new cases include Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, who tested positive with mild symptoms.
“I would say this is not unexpected that we would see numbers continue to go up, but we do have the capability in our hospitals to manage any increases,” Elliott added.
Elliott was responding to criticism that the province and chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore have been lying low as infections mount following Ontario’s end to vaccine passports and mandatory masking in most indoor public spaces.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients are up 27 per cent in the last week to 807, with 166 of them in intensive care units. Those numbers remain well within the health system’s capacity.
However, wastewater analysis suggests new daily cases are around 30,000, according to the volunteer science table advising Moore and Premier Doug Ford, and some local public health officers are warning residents to wear masks in indoor public settings and to maintain physical distancing.
“We need some guidance from the government right now,” New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said at the legislature. “It’s pretty much a hands-off approach.”
Elliott said advice from the chief medical officer is to stick with the reopening plan, but left the door open for changes when asked if the possibility of more restrictions is off the table entirely.
“One can never say entirely,” replied Elliott.
“Dr. Moore is of the view that, at this point, we are able to now learn to live with some continued cases of COVID. Unfortunately, it’s not going away completely just yet,” she said. “But we need to move on and continue … with the reopening of our economy … so that people can get back to a more normal way of life.”
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Ontario is waiting for guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) in the next few days on which age groups should be eligible for second booster shots of COVID-19 vaccine.
“We are actively moving on this and we’re continuing with our plan across the province of Ontario,” said Elliott.
Earlier this week, the United States cleared the way for anyone over 50 to get a second booster shot, providing they are four months past their first one. President Joe Biden was among the first recipients.
Second booster shots are currently available in Ontario to chemotherapy patients, as well as residents of nursing homes, retirement homes and other congregate settings, and the immunocompromised.
Liberal House Leader John Fraser said the government is “trying to pretend like COVID’s over” with the June 2 election approaching and the official campaign to kick off in the first week of May.
Fourth doses as booster shots are a good idea, “but half the people haven’t had a third dose,” he added, referring to a booster rate of 58 per cent.
Fraser called for a better strategy to get first booster shots into more Ontarians, and first and second shots into children ages five to 11.
“Where is a plan to get our vaccination rates up to where we need to be — because it’s the most important thing we can do right now,” he said.
Elliott said 90.9 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 and older have had two doses. Booster shots have been given to 7.1 million people.
In Ottawa, the local public health department has warned that COVID-19 is ramping up sharply and is reaching out to people over 50 who need second or third doses. It is also advising people to wear masks indoors, “especially when physical distancing may not be possible or proves to be challenging in crowded areas.”
“The COVID-19 wastewater viral signal is very high and increasing,” said Ottawa medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches. “Hospitalizations and outbreaks are currently stable, however we know these are lagging indicators and wastewater levels can provide an early signal of trends to follow.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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