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A staff member wearing a mask and holding sanitizer greets people entering a building at the Promenade retirement residence in Ottawa in March 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Ontario is tightening rules for long-term care homes, including regular tests for fully vaccinated staff and requiring visitors to be fully immunized against COVID-19.

The changes, announced by the government on Tuesday, come as the province’s COVID-19 numbers are rising, with cases of the Omicron variant expected to increase exponentially over the coming weeks.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, is set to hold a news conference to discuss the new measures on Tuesday afternoon, as well as to update the public about the status of Omicron cases in the province.

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On Tuesday, the country’s top doctor warned that Canada is about to experience a major surge in COVID-19 cases and that health officials need to step up the use of rapid antigen tests, booster shots and other public-health tools in order to prevent closings, lockdowns and overwhelmed hospitals.

This week, Ontario opened up booster shots for those 50 and older – with adults 18 and up to be eligible starting Jan. 4. Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, said on Monday that hospitals are moving to “urgently” re-activate mass vaccination programs.

Ontario’s COVID-19 science table said this week that Omicron now makes up 30 per cent of cases in the province, with a doubling time of three days. Dr. Moore said last week Ontario hasn’t seen any “significant indication” that Omicron causes more severe illness than other forms of the virus, but cautioned that the province is still receiving data about the variant.

The new enhanced measures for long-term care homes include twice-weekly testing of fully-vaccinated staff, students, volunteers and caregivers, starting on Friday. Visitors and support workers will also require a negative COVID-19 test upon entering the homes, or to provide one from the previous day.

In an interview, Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said the changes were made to protect long-term care residents in the face of rising cases and the emerging threat of the Omicron variant, believed by medical experts to spread faster than the current Delta strain. The province on Tuesday reported 1,429 new COVID-19 cases. Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 4, cases increased by 20 per cent in the province, to the highest numbers since May.

“We are immediately implementing further measures to protect our most vulnerable, based on the best scientific and medical advice,” Mr. Phillips said. “The threat of both broader community spread, and Omicron, means we need to take these additional steps now.”

Mr. Phillips said 86 per cent of residents have had a booster shot, but just over 30 per cent of staff – who became eligible in November – have so far had one. As of now, boosters are not mandatory for staff.

The province had already required all staff, students, volunteers and support workers to be fully vaccinated with two doses by Dec. 13, with 99 per cent now immunized – but previously exempted visitors and caregivers.

Starting immediately, visitors must also be fully vaccinated, with the exception of palliative care workers and those with medical exemptions, who would be restricted to residents’ rooms. Caregivers who enter homes now have until Dec. 20 to get their first shot, and must be fully immunized by Feb. 21, the province said.

Mr. Phillips said Ontario wants to ensure that quality of life is maintained – but also that residents are safe.

Indoor visits will be limited to two visitors at a time, and outdoor visits to four people. Residents will also be placed into cohorts for “higher-risk activities” and dining, and there will be limited large social gatherings. Overnight social visits will no longer be allowed, and only fully-vaccinated residents will be able to leave the home for social purposes.

There will be enhanced screening for new admissions and transfers, the province said, and homes must audit their infection prevention and control measures every two weeks.

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