Ontario, facing a predicted crush of COVID-19 patients who will need hospital care this month, on Monday delayed students’ return to in-person learning by two weeks, cancelled all but the most critical surgeries and other medical procedures for three weeks and reintroduced restrictions on activities like indoor dining.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial government imposed capacity restrictions on businesses like gyms and restaurants, while limiting gatherings in homes to 10 consistent contacts outside each household. The Department of Defence, meanwhile, said it is preparing to dispatch 200 people to Quebec to help with the province’s vaccination campaign, as officials there race to slow the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus.
Provincial governments across the country are struggling to slow the spread of Omicron, which first appeared in North America in late November. The number of COVID-19 patients in Canada’s hospitals climbed 67 per cent last week compared to the week prior, led by Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.
Public-health experts calculate that the number of cases of the Omicron variant is doubling roughly every other day, meaning that even if it is less severe than other variants on an individual level, it may still have the power to bowl over the health care system with a large volume of patients.
“We face a tsunami of new cases in the coming days and weeks,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said at a Monday news conference. “We are bracing for impact.”
New daily hospital admissions of infected patients have reached “triple digits” in Ontario, Mr. Ford said. His government, he added, must take action to protect the health care system and the economy.
Mr. Ford said that 1 per cent of people infected with Omicron will need hospital care. In comparison, federal data indicate more than 6 per cent of Canadians infected with COVID-19 have been hospitalized throughout the pandemic.
Ontario’s public health experts calculate that Omicron could infect hundreds of thousands of people every day, which Mr. Ford noted could crush hospitals.
“The math isn’t on our side,” he said.
Ontario reported 13,578 new COVID-19 cases Monday, which would translate to about 135 hospital admissions, based on a rate of 1 per cent. However, Canadian provinces have not been able to keep up with COVID-19 testing as Omicron rapidly makes its way through the population. As a result, the official numbers of new infections underestimate the virus’s true spread.
Ontario on Monday said there were 1,232 COVID-19 patients in hospital in the province. Meanwhile, Quebec counted 15,293 new infections Monday, with 1,396 infected patients in hospital. Newfoundland tallied 519 new infections, and there were 2,230 new reported infections in British Columbia.
To free up hospital beds and staff, Ontario paused all non-urgent surgeries and other medical procedures for at least 21 days. This will mean 8,000 to 10,000 surgeries and procedures per week will be delayed, according to Matt Anderson, the chief executive of Ontario Health.
Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said these cancellations will open up between 1,200 and 1,500 hospital beds. He noted that while demand for hospital care is skyrocketing, most patients only need to be treated with oxygen.
“The vast majority won’t require intensive care or mechanical ventilation,” Dr. Moore said.
Although hospital admissions are now increasing rapidly, Dr. Moore said officials expect them to peak in Ontario by the end of January. Meanwhile, he said, the rate of people missing work across all sectors of the economy is forecast to be between 20 and 30 per cent in coming weeks.
Premiers are desperate to keep children in classrooms, in part because they believe it is the best way for pupils to learn, and in part because compelling working parents to care for their children around the clock can slow the economy. Last week, Ontario said students would return to school Jan. 5, two days later than originally planned. The delay was meant to give schools time to prepare systems to temper Omicron’s spread. On Monday, Mr. Ford extended this delay to Jan. 17, noting that virtual learning will take place until the return to classrooms.
Mr. Ford said the rate of people missing work across economic sectors indicates there would not have been enough staff to keep kids in classrooms.
On Wednesday, Ontario will close restaurants and pubs to indoor dining until Jan. 27, although outdoor service and takeout will be permitted, with restrictions. Gyms and other indoor gathering areas will also be shuttered. Malls and personal care businesses will be able to operate at 50 per cent capacity, the government said.
Indoor gatherings are capped at five people and outdoor gatherings are limited to 10. The government also instructed people to work remotely if possible.
In Newfoundland as of Tuesday, weddings, funerals and other religious and cultural ceremonies must be capped at 50 people, or 25 per cent of a venue’s capacity, whichever is less. Facilities like gyms, dance studios and arenas are limited to 50 people, or 25 per cent capacity per room or ice surface, whichever is less. Restaurants may stay open, at 50 per cent capacity, so long as physical distancing is possible and tables are restricted to six guests each. Retailers must operate at reduced capacity, too.
Janice Fitzgerald, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said “most people” will contract the virus and the new measures are aimed at making sure they don’t all get it at once.
Newfoundland had already shuttered bars, lounges and theatres. Last week, the province said learning for school-aged kids would shift online after the holidays. Students in New Brunswick will attend classes virtually until at least Jan. 21. Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia have also postponed students’ returns to school. Saskatchewan has not altered its school schedule.
The new restrictions in Ontario and Newfoundland are less severe than those in Quebec, which last week reintroduced a curfew in its effort to curb transmission. Quebec also halted indoor dining and banned personal gatherings at home.
With a report from The Canadian Press
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