Ontarians who are vaccinated but develop COVID-19 symptoms will now isolate for five days instead of 10 — one of a slew of changes to pandemic measures the provincial government is implementing before the start of the new year.
In addition to limiting PCR testing to high-risk individuals only — meaning the province’s daily COVID case counts will no longer paint a full picture — Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore also announced that students will return to school on Wednesday, Jan. 5, two days later than scheduled.
Indoor sports and concert venues will be capped at 50 per cent capacity, or 1,000 people, whichever is less — including Scotiabank Arena, which has a Raptors game scheduled for Friday night. Theatres, but not cinemas, are also included in the changes that come into effect Dec. 31.
“I understand that we’re all tired and just want this pandemic to be over,” Moore said Thursday. “Unfortunately, though, we need to get through this Omicron wave and we are asking even more of you as we prioritize our testing, prioritize our case and contact management and ask you to take all the precautions necessary to protect yourselves and your families.
“Omicron has presented us with new challenges and we’ve had to be flexible and adaptive in the face of this new variant.”
But the changes raised worries among some experts and critics that the province is “moving the bar lower and you are going to increase the odds that someone comes out of isolation contagious,” said Colin Furness, a University of Toronto epidemiologist.
Ten days, he added, “was probably pretty conservative, so maybe there’s room to reduce that a little, but the thing is there is going to be individual variation — some people will be less contagious a lot sooner, some later … It’s a practical way to make things easier to bear, but you are increasing the risk by some amount.”
In the province’s 4,000 schools, teachers and staff will be provided with N95 masks to wear, and an extra 3,000 HEPA air filters will be distributed to classrooms across Ontario in January.
“Our children have sacrificed a lot in the last 20 months, and I think it’s a positive statement to ensure our schools stay open for the students that have sacrificed so much for their own mental, physical and social well-being,” Moore also said Thursday, noting the move has the support of the province’s science advisory table as well as experts at Sick Kids Hospital and CHEO, Ottawa’s children’s hospital.
Dr. Peter Jüni, scientific director of Ontario’s science table, said the two-day back-to-school delay will allow schools to boost safety precautions and get daily screening protocols back in place.
He said even with limited testing, positivity rates can give an indication of COVID prevalence and said while the new five-day isolation period “is short … we need to reflect that society needs to continue. It’s a pragmatic solution.”
All but low-contact extracurriculars, however, will be put on hold as COVID cases continue to hit record highs in the province, with 13,807 new cases reported Thursday, though the fate of kids’ community sports leagues will remain up to local public health units.
Moore said the extra two days will give schools a chance to distribute masks to staff and re-establish daily COVID screening and other safety measures before kids return.
And from now on, PCR lab-based testing will be reserved for those considered high-risk who are showing symptoms, employees and residents in vulnerable settings, and staff and students in schools distributing PCR kits — meaning anyone else with mild symptoms, or a positive rapid test, is no longer eligible.
Rapid tests should also be used “judiciously” and not prior to socializing, Moore said.
Ontario’s new isolation rules come on the heels of similar changes in the U.S., and amid evidence that people who contract Omicron are typically most infectious two days before symptoms appear and three days after that.
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The changes mean five days of isolation for anyone vaccinated or under 12 years of age after they show symptoms, as well anyone in their household. As long as their symptoms have improved, quarantine can end after five days.
However, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on the premier to “immediately reverse his decision to restrict testing — and to increase protections against COVID instead — especially in our children’s schools. This looks like Doug Ford is surrendering Ontario to COVID — throwing in the towel.”
She also called the two-day school delay “a frustrating head-scratcher … with almost no new safety measures and no testing plan, he’s leaving everyone to worry that more shut downs for schools will keep coming.”
As for limited PCR testing, “we need to ramp up to make testing more available, not cut people off,” Horwath also said.
“Folks are worried that we’ll no longer know how widespread COVID is in our communities, we’ll be unable to put out hot spots or prevent outbreaks, and we’ll be less safe when we see loved ones or go to work.”
Furness said without a clear idea of case counts “when you are trying to give guidance and decide when to open schools, you do need to base it on community prevalence, you really do.”
But Moore said while “people have been monitoring the total daily test positive count rigorously … we have to pivot. We know there’s ongoing community activity across Ontario, we know we’ll have very high transmission risk. And that data element now has to be targeted and focused to best protect Ontarians to screen those that need treatment to screen those that are working in our highest risk settings to best protect Ontarians.
“So I hope Ontarians will understand that we have to shift, we have to pivot given the sheer infectiousness of this virus.”
New Ontario data show the risk of hospitalization or death from Omicron is 54 per cent lower than Delta, Moore said, adding that hospitals will also start reporting patients who are admitted for COVID and those who are in hospital for other reasons who happen to test positive for COVID.
Dr. Anna Banerji said she would have preferred a one- to two-week hiatus for classes to get past any post-holiday bump in cases and to give time for vaccination blitzes in schools.
“We are sending all these unvaccinated kids back to school — I think schools are going to close down fairly quickly,” she added. “I think there are going to be many outbreaks.”
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said she was pleased to learn staff will receive N95 masks, but would have also liked a vaccination mandate.
She said staff shortages will be a continuing challenge in the new year, and boards could set aside one day a week for online learning to help ease the problem.
Abraham also said boards that have decided to move ahead with a regular semester for secondary students are expecting to still do so.
The province will also now start providing fourth COVID vaccine doses to residents of long-term care homes and retirement homes three months after they received a third dose.
Correction, Dec. 30 2021: This story has been edited to clarify that since PCR testing will be limited to high-risk individuals, daily COVID-19 case counts provided by the Ontario government will now be less accurate in terms of total population.
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