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Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, stands alongside Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore at a press briefing in Toronto on Oct. 15, 2021. Sources say the province is extending its COVID-19 vaccine passport program, amid worrying modelling projections.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario intends to keep its COVID-19 vaccine passport program in place later than Jan. 17 and will require all certificates to include a digital QR code, part of new measures the government plans to announce on Friday that also have a stricter process for verifying medical exemptions, sources say.

The government as well has no plans to shutter schools before or after next week’s scheduled winter break, two sources familiar with the matter told The Globe and Mail. The Globe is not identifying the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly about internal government matters.

Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet is set to meet on Friday morning to discuss the new measures, but two sources say the government has already decided to drop its previously announced plan to lift the vaccine passport system on Jan. 17, with no replacement end date. The announcement is set to be made on Friday by the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore.

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The change in plans comes as Ontario recorded its highest daily number of new infections on Thursday since May, with 1,290 cases. It also follows new modelling projections from the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table this week that warned of a worst-case scenario – even without considering the impact of the new Omicron variant – of as many as 3,000 new cases a day by mid-January. The projections said this could mean close to 400 COVID-19 patients in intensive care – a tally that would force hospitals to once again cancel surgeries to cope.

Earlier this week, Ontario announced that the worsening situation had prompted it to shelve any further loosening of capacity limits on certain high-risk businesses, including nightclubs, wedding receptions that allow dancing, and strip and sex clubs.

The province on Friday also intends to announce that it will require vaccine certificates to include a digital QR code, the sources said, a measure that will likely kick in in the new year. One of the sources said the government is also going to strengthen its process to verify medical exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, requiring approval from public-health officials.

The Jan. 17 date for phasing out proof-of-vaccination rules for restaurants, bars, gyms and certain other higher-risk businesses was outlined in a plan the government released in October. Opposition critics and some public-health experts said it was an unrealistic goal that also sent the wrong message to those still resisting the vaccine.

Dr. Moore said at the time – and again earlier this week – that he would be reviewing infection rates and hospital capacity in January before going ahead with any phase-out.

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Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott had also said that any rollback of vaccine certificates would depend on COVID-19 numbers and new data expected on the new Omicron variant, which reports suggest is more contagious than the now-dominant Delta strain of the virus. But Ms. Elliott stopped short earlier this week of saying the Jan. 17 date was off the table.

The province’s vaccine-certificate program, which launched in September but did not offer a downloadable QR code until nearly a month later, has also faced criticism for being too easy to defraud. Critics said the province’s printable vaccine certificates were too easy to forge and that doctors’ notes indicating medical exemptions could also be faked.

The Opposition NDP and Liberals have frequently accused Mr. Ford of pandering to an anti-vaccine fringe. Before reversing himself in the summer as the pandemic worsened, Mr. Ford had rejected the idea of vaccine certificates, warning it would create a “two-tier” society.

The reopening plan Mr. Ford unveiled in October also called for all public-health measures, including mask rules, to be dropped by the end of March.

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