TORONTO — The resumption of schools will be delayed by two days and testing and isolation rules have been revamped, Ontario's top doctor said Thursday as daily COVID-19 cases continue to break records.
Classes were set to resume Monday in much of the province, but the holiday break will now end on Wednesday.
Dr. Kieran Moore said the extra days will give schools time to prepare for several changes, including providing N95 masks to staff in schools and daycares, deploying 3,000 HEPA filter units in addition to the 70,000 it has already rolled out.
He also announced that publicly funded PCR testing will now be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or are at risk of severe illness from the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus.
"We must preserve those resources for those that need it the most," Moore said of the PCR testing.
He said anyone with symptoms should assume they have COVID-19 and isolate at home.
Those who have a positive result from a rapid antigen test will no longer need to get a confirmatory PCR test and there will be no testing for asymptomatic individuals.
Moore also said the isolation period for those with COVID-19 will drop to five days from 10 days following the onset of symptoms for those who are vaccinated as well as for children under 12 years old.
Household contacts will also have to isolate with those who have tested positive. Isolation can end after five days if individuals' symptoms have improved for at least 24 hours.
Moore said the change is "based on growing evidence that generally healthy people with COVID-19 are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop."
Moore also said the province will further restrict capacity in large indoor venues starting Friday with a hard cap of 1,000 spectators.
"Omicron is a new enemy," Moore said. "We continue to prepare for it, but we must take a different approach and take further action to limit transmission, provide additional protection to high-risk settings and continue to safeguard Ontario hospitals and ICU capacity."
Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said the changes to COVID-19 testing reflect “the reality that our testing system is getting overwhelmed.”
He said while the changes make sense, given the strain on testing capacity, "it will not be enough to get case numbers stabilized." Juni said the province needs to take further measures to avoid the testing system as well as the health-care system being overwhelmed in the future.
He made a “strong” work-from-home recommendation, reduction of capacity limits in certain settings such as restaurants and bars to 25 per cent, and that individuals adapt their behaviour and limit their contacts to slow the spread of the virus.
“We can't continue to be in exponential growth,” Juni said in a phone interview Thursday.
Ontario is the latest province to announce changes to the start of school due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Some provinces have decided to prolong the winter break for some or all students, while others have opted to switch to virtual learning starting next week.
The news comes as the province has set several records for daily COVID-19 infections in quick succession, with the latest peak — 13,807 new infections — reported Thursday.
There will be several short-term measures implemented at schools, such as virtual-only school-wide assemblies and more cohorting at lunch and recess for elementary students, the source said.
"The idea of opening schools right now, in the midst of the most contagious wave yet, is mind boggling," said Dan Lajoie, a guidance counsellor at a high school in Ottawa.
He said he knows of more than a dozen teachers with COVID-19 at the moment, a number he said will only increase.
"We should be following what other provinces are doing and delay for a week or two and allow educators time to pivot to online learning until this wave dies down," he said.
Laura Jackson, whose four-year-old daughter is in junior kindergarten at a school in South Mountain, Ont., outside Ottawa, said she was surprised by the province's decision.
She said she is worried her daughter will catch the virus when she returns to school.
"I am fearful about how much we much we are going to have to isolate when there is COVID in the classroom," she said. "I am glad we have at least heard something though. The Thursday before is a bit ridiculous to be getting an update."
On Thursday, 965 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 200 people in intensive care, Health Minister Christine Elliott said. The seven-day average of COVID-19 related patients in ICU is now 179, she said.
"Data is being updated to distinguish patients in hospital/ICU for COVID-19 from those admitted for other reasons but test positive," Elliott added.
The province also recorded eight new deaths due to COVID-19.
A new study by Public Health Ontario on recent COVID-19 cases suggests the Omicron variant is less likely to cause hospitalization or death than the Delta variant, but could still significantly impact health-care systems due to its high transmissibility.
The agency identified 6,314 Omicron cases that saw symptoms emerge between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17, and matched them with Delta cases based on age, gender and onset date.
It found that after adjusting for vaccination status and region, the risk of hospitalization or death was 54 per cent lower in Omicron cases than Delta cases.
"Omicron appears to be the first dominant variant to demonstrate a decline in disease severity," the study said.
"While severity may be reduced, due to the transmissibility of Omicron, the absolute number of hospitalizations and impact on the healthcare system is likely to be significant."
Even as daily case counts increase, health experts have said that the actual number may be much higher than reported because of holidays, and with hospitals and testing centres strained.
At least one public health unit in the Toronto area has asked residents to fill out a survey if they test positive on a rapid antigen test. York Region Public Health said the move would ensure it can have "the information needed to respond to the pandemic" and better understand the use of rapid tests in the region.
Also on Thursday, new rules took effect at long-term care homes in the province, putting a pause on access to nursing homes by general visitors and day absences for all residents for social purposes.
Designated caregivers, however, may continue to enter long-term care homes.
Residents of nursing homes, retirement homes, elder care lodges and other congregate care settings will be eligible for a fourth dose of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Liam Casey and Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect number of new deaths from COVID-19.