All Ontario adults who are at least six months past their second doses will be eligible for booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines starting Jan. 4, as new federal modelling warns that cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant could send infection rates skyrocketing next month.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore announced the eligibility expansion on Friday. It will apply to people 18 and older. Meanwhile, COVID-19 infections in the province are rising rapidly and new projections suggest Omicron could dominate Ontario’s cases within weeks, potentially further straining the health care system.
National modelling that the Public Health Agency of Canada released Friday showed that the country as a whole could have more than 7,000 new cases a day in January, provided current rates of transmission remain the same – even without Omicron. If the Omicron variant takes over, national daily new case counts could shoot as high as 26,600 by mid-January, the modelling projects.
Ontario reported 1,453 new cases on Friday, its highest total since May. Canada as a whole counted 4,745 new cases.
Health experts say early indications suggest third vaccine doses will provide additional protection against Omicron, and also shore up waning immunity among those who received their initial shots long ago – particularly older people. The new variant already accounts for 10 per cent of Ontario’s cases, Dr. Moore said, and could hit 20 per cent in the coming days before dominating the province’s COVID-19 infections by January.
The province is already providing boosters for older cohorts, and had announced that it would be lowering the minimum age for third doses to 50 on Monday. It had previously said other age groups could expect them in the new year.
Dr. Moore said Ontario hasn’t seen any “significant indication” that Omicron causes more severe illness than other forms of the virus. But he cautioned that the province is still receiving data about the variant. Asked why the government isn’t opening up third doses to all age groups even sooner, he said the province was making those most at risk of severe disease or death its priority.
Ontario also announced on Friday it was scrapping its plan, announced in October, to potentially lift its vaccine-certificate system by Jan. 17. Critics had said the deadline was unrealistic, and that it sent the wrong message to vaccine resisters.
The province is also tightening its vaccine-certificate regime. Effective Jan. 4, the system, which forces staff at restaurants and other high-risk businesses to check that all patrons are vaccinated, will only allow for the use of the province’s downloadable QR codes. Older vaccine receipts will no longer be valid. The government says printed copies of the new QR codes will be accepted.
There are also new rules for those claiming medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines. As of Jan. 10, Ontarians who claim these exemptions when entering places that require vaccine certificates will need verified certificates with QR codes, not merely paper doctor’s notes. They will have to submit their notes to their local public-health units for validation, and have the information uploaded to the province’s computer system.
Critics have said Ontario’s existing system made it too easy for people to fake medical exemptions. Ms. Elliott said the changes will further encourage the unvaccinated to get their shots.
In the face of the Omicron threat, health officials in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park urged caution during holiday gatherings, saying people should wear masks inside and open windows periodically to help with ventilation. Dr. Moore said even the fully vaccinated should wear masks around vulnerable people.
“Please keep your social contacts to a minimum,” Dr. Moore said. “Keep your gatherings small. ... We do not want this holiday season to become a superspreading event.”
Dr. Moore also said all employers should “make every effort” to have employees work from home. And he announced that, effective Dec. 20, children over 12 will need to be vaccinated to participate in organized sports in recreational facilities – a requirement some youth organizations, such as the Greater Toronto Hockey League, have already implemented.
He also said the province is now reviewing the definition of what constitutes “fully vaccinated,” as it tries to understand how third doses protect against the Omicron variant. Currently, the province considers people with at least two doses – not three – to be fully vaccinated.
Asked about whether Ontario was debating extending the winter break for schools to stop viral transmission in classrooms, Dr. Moore said he believes schools remain safe. But he said officials are watching the numbers closely. He noted the province has vaccinated 26 per cent of its five-to-11-year-olds, although this rate varies significantly between public-health units.
“At present, we’ve got agreement that our schools will stay open and reopen on time in January,” Dr. Moore told reporters.
Earlier Friday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos warned that travel abroad is “risky and unstable” because of the Omicron variant and that returning to Canada could involve “delays and hassle.” Still, he said the federal government’s official travel advice, that fully vaccinated people can safely travel for non-essential purposes, remains unchanged – for now.
He also told reporters that new border requirements his government announced two weeks ago are still being implemented. A new on-arrival test-and-isolate rule for air travellers arriving in Canada from outside of the United States is not yet fully in place, and the government has not said when it will be up and running. However, Mr. Duclos said the government now has the capacity to test just under three-quarters of the arriving travellers who are supposed to be tested for COVID-19. The new rule requires these travellers to isolate until they receive negative test results.
Mr. Duclos said Ottawa would provide the provinces and territories with 35 million more rapid COVID-19 tests in time for the holidays. He said the federal government had already provided 86 million of these tests, but until recently they had been “largely underutilized.”
The Ontario government has faced criticism in recent days for reserving most of its free tests for businesses, schools or health care institutions, forcing people who have not received them to order them online or pay $40 for a test at a drug store.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, urged Canadians to get vaccinated and get boosters if they are eligible. She cautioned that not enough is known about how severe the Omicron variant will be.
“I’ve been saying that the winter period is going to be a bumpy road towards a brighter spring, if you like,” Dr. Tam told reporters. “So this is another bump on the road.”
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released its own modelling this week. The table warned that, even without the new variant, the province could see up to 400 COVID-19 patients in its intensive-care units by mid-January, forcing hospitals to once again cancel surgeries.
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