The Ontario government has announced new measures amid a rise in COVID-19 cases in the province and concerns around the Omicron variant.
“Our cautious approach and recent healthcare investments, combined with high vaccination rates, have kept hospital and intensive care unit [rates] stable and low at this point,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said at a press conference Friday.
“However, with cases expected to increase during the winter months, and as we continue to monitor the evolving global evidence around the Omicron variant, we must remain vigilant. We are still learning about the new variant, but we can expect that the months ahead may be very challenging.”
The government announced that eligibility for booster shots is being expanded to all those aged 18+ beginning Jan. 4. Appointments will be able to be booked around six months after a person receives their second dose.
It was previously announced that as of Monday, all adults aged 50+ will be eligible for a booster shot in Ontario.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said that as booster shots roll out, the definition of who is considered fully vaccinated may change in the face of the Omicron variant.
The government is also extending the use of the proof of vaccination system beyond Jan. 17, which is when the province previously indicated the measure would start to be lifted in certain settings.
“This is aligned with Ontario’s reopening plan, which required an absence of concerning trends before gradually lifting further public health measures,” Elliott said.
As of Jan. 4, QR codes will be the only acceptable way to provide proof of vaccination in the province. Paper or electronic forms will be accepted.
The original vaccination receipts, which have been susceptible to fraud, will no longer be accepted.
New measures were also announced to verify medical and clinical trial exemptions for the vaccine.
Beginning Dec. 20, the government said proof of vaccination will be required for youth aged 12 to 17 to participate in organized sports.
The government said it is also planning an “enhanced winter testing strategy” beginning next week, offering rapid antigen tests to asymptomatic individuals free of charge at pop-up testing sites in “high traffic” areas such as malls, transit hubs, and retail locations.
“To protect our most vulnerable populations, we are increasing rapid testing for high-risk congregate settings and strengthening rapid antigen testing for schools to initiate threshold-based rapid antigen testing in that setting,” Moore added at Friday’s press conference.
“These initiatives are in addition to Ontario’s holiday testing blitz that will offer voluntary rapid antigen test screening to asymptomatic individuals free of charge.”
Moore also encouraged Ontarians to limit social gatherings over the holidays.
“Your gathering should be small and you should limit the number of gatherings you attend and know the rules in your local public health jurisdiction,” he said.
“If you are planning on hosting holiday events, it is advisable to ensure everyone in attendance is fully vaccinated, especially if seniors or immunocompromised people are attending.”
Moore said masks should be worn if vulnerable people are in attendance, even if individuals are fully vaccinated.
Employers are also being encouraged to allow employees to work from home when possible.
“Reducing mobility of people will help to reduce disease transmission,” Moore said.
10% of samples tested positive for Omicron
Moore was also asked about what the COVID-19 situation means for schools in the province.
He said the province is “not contemplating” any closures currently but is concerned about the rise in the number of Omicron cases.
“As of yesterday, 10 percent of the samples detected at Public Health Ontario were positive for Omicron and it’s anticipated that we’ll have a significant rise in the coming weeks and in the next month and that it may become a dominant strain very soon,” Moore said.
“That may change our approach, but at present, we’re not contemplating any early closure or delayed opening of the school system.”
Moore said projections from Public Health Ontario indicate that Omicron may become the dominant COVID-19 strain in the province by the beginning of January.
COVID-19 cases have been rising in Ontario in recent weeks, though the number of people hospitalized or in intensive care with COVID-19 has remained relatively stable.
There are still many uncertainties around the Omicron variant. It is believed to be more transmissible, but the virulence of the strain is still unclear.
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