In the wake of growing concerns over the Omicron variant, and the increased number of COVID-19 cases, many people thought that Tuesday’s update from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore was going to make more news than it did. Instead, Moore offered some concern about the stats, but he didn’t really change the game plan for fighting COVID, at least in the short-term.
“The impact of Omicron on hospitalizations in ICUs is not yet observed, and while there’s still some uncertainty around the virulence of Omicron, we have good evidence that it is more transmissible than the Delta variant, and it is spreading amongst fully-vaccinated individuals,” explained Moore from the media studio at Queen’s Park Tuesday. “Data suggests that each Omicron case is infecting four-to-eight times more individuals than the Delta variant, and it is rapidly becoming the dominant strain in Ontario.”
The main purpose of Moore’s announcement today was to rollout improved health and safety measures for residents, staff and caregivers in long-term care homes. Starting on December 17 at midnight, all staff, students, volunteers and caregivers will have to be tested twice-a-week regardless of their vaccine status. Caregivers will have to be fully vaccinated unless they have a valid medical exemption, or are attending to a resident for palliative or end of life care.
For residents, indoor visits will be limited to two people at a time, or four people at a time for outdoor visits. High-risk social activities like singing and dancing will be cohorted, and social day trips will be limited to those residents who are fully-vaccinated, and they will have to be screened when they return. Also, overnight trips for residents, regardless of their vaccination status, are suspended for the time being.
Many of these same rules will be extended to retirement homes as of December 22, including the new rules around testing, a recommendation to restrict visitors to the fully-vaccinated, limiting large numbers of visitors at one time, and the implementation of testing for residents after overnight trips.
The additional precautions focus again on the older population, at least until everyone’s received their third shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. People age 50 and over are now eligible for booster shots, and Moore seemed to indicate that those boosters were key to protecting people with weakened immune systems, older people, and people with other health issues.
“Although our vaccines appear to be less effective against the transmission of Omicron, evidence is showing us that they still likely provide strong protection against severe illness, especially with a booster dose,” Moore explained. “That is why it’s critically important for those who are eligible for a booster dose to come forward immediately, especially those who are elderly and immuno-compromised.
“I would ask that all health care workers who are eligible to get their booster shot. This will not only help to protect you, but also the patients you care for,” Moore added.
For those expecting a massive turn in fighting this latest wave of the pandemic, there was some disappointment with Tuesday’s news conference. When asked about those expectations by the Globe & Mail‘s Laura Stone, Moore said that these recommendations are “precautionary measures” that have been “put in place to best protect our most vulnerable members of our community.”
Moore also said that he’s been working with partners around Ontario over the last several days to expand capacity for distributing those now crucial booster shots.
“All weekend, we’ve been discussing with partners on how to increase the number of people that we can vaccinate in a very short period of time in Ontario, and I’m happy to say that in just a few days, we’ve gone from 37,000 on the weekend to 95,000 people vaccinated yesterday (Monday),” Moore explained. “It’s our intent to work with all of those partners to increase capacity, and ensure that those over 50, as a prioritized population, and those that are currently already eligible for their third doses, get them.”
Looking ahead 10 days to Christmas Eve, and the likelihood of holiday get togethers, Moore said that there will be some guidance coming forward later this week, but he asked people especially at risk of COVID to avoid large gatherings, and even avoid any unnecessary trips outside for the time being.
“I believe there will be a discussion in the coming days about what additional measures we may need, if any, to best protect Ontarians against Omicron,” Moore said. “It does appear to be much more transmissible than Delta. It is a threat, and we need to urgently understand its severity and potential impact on the health system, but we do want a consistent approach if measures are put in play across Ontario.”
The leaders of Ontario’s opposition party did not like the sound of this wait-and-see approach from Dr. Moore, and called on the Ontario government to act. Even before Dr. Moore’s press conference on Tuesday, Guelph MPP and Green Party leader Mike Schreiner demanded that booster shots be immediately available to everyone in Ontario 18 and over.
“According to the Ontario Science Advisory Table, the Omicron variant is here and doubling every three days. Boosters will help reduce spread, symptoms and hospitalizations and protect the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed,” Schreiner said. “Many public health experts have said that waiting until January 4 to expand boosters to everyone 18-plus is too late. We have the supply. Let’s get moving.”
Deputy NDP leader Sara Singh seconded the move to make boosters available to all Ontario adults, and also asked for free rapid tests, in-school vaccinations clinics, smaller class sizes, and a program of recruitment and retention for Ontario’s nurses. Singh said that Premier Doug Ford is “sleepwalking” the province into Omicron’s arms.
“No one wants their loved ones to get sick, no one wants another shutdown, and no one wants hospitals to be overwhelmed. But we need to act now to prevent those things — experts have made it clear we are quickly running out of time,” Singh said.
“We need strong leadership right now before we see a repeat of the disaster caused by Doug Ford this time last year,” added Liberal leader Steven Del Duca in his own statement. “I am demanding immediate action to protect Ontario families from the surging wave of Omicron cases.”