Ontario is speeding up COVID-19 booster shots for all adults starting as early as Friday, and allowing people to book them three months after their second shot. The province is also cutting capacity limits in half at large indoor events and sports venues, as part of new measures to curb the spread of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
The changes, announced Wednesday by Premier Doug Ford’s government, also include an expansion of rapid testing in the province, with take-home tests at LCBO stores available starting this week.
Mr. Ford held a news conference on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the new measures.
Starting on Monday, adults 18 and over can book their booster shots through the provincial website or call-in centre, pharmacies and primary care settings. But as early as Friday, participating pharmacies can provide boosters to all adults on a walk-in basis, the government said.
The province opened up booster eligibility to those 50 and over this week, and previously announced that adults 18 and up would be eligible starting on Jan. 4. But with the Omicron variant – which is increasingly infecting the double vaccinated – on track to become the dominant strain in the province, the government has been facing growing calls to speed up booster shots for everyone.
Ontario is also changing the six-month interval between second and third doses to just three months, or 84 days, and said anyone who is currently booked in for a booster at the six-month interval and wants to get it earlier can call the provincial hotline or rebook online starting Monday.
As of Saturday at 12:01 a.m., the government is slashing capacity limits by 50 per cent at indoor entertainment and sports venues with a capacity of more than 1,000 people. This includes sports and recreational fitness facilities, concert venues, theatres and cinemas, meeting and event spaces, museums, galleries, zoos, casinos and gaming halls. This is being done to “reduce opportunities for close contact in high-risk indoor settings with large crowds and when masks are not always worn,” the government said.
On Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said each Omicron case infects four to eight times more people than the Delta variant. The province’s test positivity rate is at 6.6 per cent, he added, with hospitalizations up 13 per cent over the past week. Although occupancy in intensive-care units remains stable, there is still uncertainty around the variant’s virulence, and it could put more pressure on hospitals, he said.
Mr. Moore said he would present the provincial cabinet with recommendations for new rules that will bring a more “consistent” approach across Ontario, including advice on gathering limits for the holidays.
In order to scale up the vaccination program, the province said it has asked public health units, hospitals, pharmacists and doctors to create additional vaccination sites. Ontario is also partnering with large corporations to implement workplace and community clinics for employees, their families and the local community. On Tuesday, the province administered 127,000 shots, with the goal of dolling out 200,000 to 300,000 doses a day by next week.
The province also launched its “holiday blitz” rapid testing program on Wednesday, with two million kits to be available for free at malls, holiday markets, public libraries and transit hubs.
Meanwhile, Ontario announced it was cutting the wholesale prices that pandemic-stricken restaurants and bars pay for alcohol to the province’s liquor monopoly. Industry lobbyists say the changes will save such outlets 10 per cent off their current bills. Even before the pandemic, the industry had long complained that Ontario unfairly inflated the prices businesses pay for booze when compared with other jurisdictions.
With a file from Jeff Gray
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