Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore is set to hold a 3 p.m. ET news conference. CBC News will carry the announcement live in this story.
Ontario will push back the return to school to Wednesday, Jan. 5, The Canadian Press reports, citing a senior government source.
Classes were 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.
According to The Canadian Press, the source says the province will deploy 3,000 more HEPA filter units to school boards in addition to the 70,000 it has already rolled out, and will also provide N95 masks to staff.
CBC News has asked Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office multiple times when an announcement will be made, but has not received an answer. CBC News has also asked whether teachers will be given N95 masks, with no response.
The Canadian Press reports that the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly ahead of an afternoon announcement on the issue, also said the province would further restrict capacity in large indoor venues starting Friday.
Concert venues, arenas and theatres are currently limited to 50 per cent capacity, but the source said there will also be a hard cap of 1,000 spectators for larger venues.
The source said the changes were approved by cabinet Thursday morning and will be officially announced by Ontario’s chief medical officer of health in the afternoon.
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 source said, according to the Canadian Press.
Positivity rate spikes to 30.5%
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.
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.
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.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore was supposed to hold a news conference on Tuesday, but it was postponed after U.S. health officials cut isolation times for COVID-positive Americans from 10 to five days, and similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine.
Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the guidance was in keeping with growing evidence that people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.
Like Ontario, many areas in the U.S. are experiencing dramatic increases in new COVID-19 cases. While early research suggests Omicron may cause less severe illness than previous variants, the sheer number of people becoming infected — and therefore having to isolate or quarantine — threatens to crush the ability of U.S. hospitals, airlines and other businesses to stay open, the CDC said.
The Ontario Ministry of Health said Moore wanted time to review the U.S. changes before announcing any revised policies for the province.
Hospitalization, death less likely with Omicron: study
A new study from Public Health Ontario suggests that Omicron is indeed 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.”
WATCH | Ontario parents anxious about back-to-school plans:
The ongoing surge in cases has had some health experts and families wondering if Ontario’s two million students will return to school for in-person learning next week, with critics expressing frustration that the province’s plan is still clouded with uncertainty.
Some provinces have decided to prolong the winter break for some or all students, while others have opted to switch to virtual learning starting next week.
Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that his cabinet ministers would meet soon to finalize a plan.
“I know the minister [of health] has been sitting down at the table along with the minister of education … and we will be having an announcement in the next couple of days,” Ford said.
“But we just want to see how things go and obviously speak to the chief medical officer, Dr. Moore.”