Schools closed, hospitals limit surgeries as Omicron variant spreads

New restrictions announced by province as COVID-19 cases reach record high

TORONTO – With case rates skyrocketing due to the highly-transmissible Omicron variant as the COVID-19 pandemic heads into a third calendar year, the Ontario government has reintroduced a series of restrictions on business and social activity, while keeping schools in the province closed until at least Jan. 17.

According to a Jan. 3 press release from the province, the measures, which include a ban on indoor dining in restaurants, closing indoor sports facilities and limiting indoor social gatherings to five people, were taken in response to “recent trends that show an alarming increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations.”

With case numbers exploding as the Omicron variant takes hold, the government had already announced limitations on PCR testing which has resulted in recent record province-wide statistics being considered a significant undercount.

Provincial officials state the “time-limited measures” announced on Monday “will help blunt transmission and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed as the province continues to accelerate its booster dose rollout.”

“As we continue with our provincial vaccine booster efforts, we must look at every option to slow the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant,” said Premier Doug Ford.

“Putting these targeted and time-limited measures in place will give us more opportunity to deliver vaccines to all Ontarians and ensure everyone has maximum protection against this virus.”

The province returned to a modified version of step two of the Roadmap to Reopen effective Jan. 5. The government stated the measures will remain in place for at least 21 days (until Jan. 26), “subject to trends in public health and health system indicators.”

Measures announced on Monday include:

– reducing social gathering limits to five people indoors and 10 outdoors;

– limiting capacity at organized public events to five people indoors;

– requiring businesses and organizations to ensure employees work remotely unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site;

– limiting capacity at indoor weddings, funerals, and religious services, rites and ceremonies to 50 per cent capacity of the particular room. Outdoor services are limited to the number of people that can maintain two metres of physical distance. Social gatherings associated with these services must adhere to the social gathering limits;

– retail settings, including shopping malls, permitted at 50 per cent capacity;

– personal care services permitted at 50% capacity and other restrictions;

– closing indoor meeting and event spaces with limited exceptions but permitting outdoor spaces to remain open with restrictions;

– public libraries limited to 50% capacity (Wellington County libraries are already restricted curbside pickup with limited exceptions);

– closing indoor dining at restaurants, bars and other food or drink establishments. Outdoor dining with restrictions, takeout, drive-through and delivery is permitted;

– restricting the sale of alcohol after 10pm and the consumption of alcohol on-premise in businesses after 11pm,  with delivery and takeout, grocery/convenience stores and other liquor stores exempted;

– closing indoor concert venues, theatres, cinemas (rehearsals and recorded performances permitted with restrictions);

– closing museums, galleries, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens and similar attractions, amusement parks and waterparks, tour and guide services and fairs, rural exhibitions, and festivals. Outdoor establishments permitted to open with restrictions and with spectator occupancy, where applicable, limited to 50% capacity;

– closing indoor horse racing tracks, car racing tracks and other similar venues. Outdoor establishments permitted to open with restrictions and with spectator occupancy limited to 50% capacity. Boat tours permitted at 50% capacity; and

– closing indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities, including gyms, except for athletes training for the Olympics and Paralympics and select professional and elite amateur sport leagues. Outdoor facilities are permitted to operate but with the number of spectators not to exceed 50% occupancy.

Despite the Dec. 30 release of a plan that called for schools to open on Jan. 5, rather than Jan. 3, the province announced Monday that all publicly funded and private schools would move to remote learning starting Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 17, subject to public health trends and operational considerations.

School buildings are permitted to open for child care operations, including emergency child care, to provide in-person instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely and for staff who are unable to deliver quality instruction from home.

In addition, the government announced that during this period of remote learning, free emergency child care will be provided for school-aged children of health care and other eligible frontline workers.

Also announced was a pause on all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries and procedures “in order to preserve critical care and human resource capacity.”

Wellington County hospitals had already announced a pause on elective surgery in a Dec. 31 press release from Groves Memorial Community Hospital and North Wellington Health Care (NWHC).

The hospitals stated the measure, in effect until at least Jan. 17, was in response to a directive from Ontario Health.

Also announced on Jan. 3 were measures to mitigate the impact the Omicron variant and additional public health measures on small businesses including expansion of the new Ontario Business Costs Rebate Program.

Eligible businesses that are required to close or reduce capacity will receive rebate payments for a portion of the property tax and energy costs they incur while subject to these measures. A full list of eligible business types will be made available when applications for the program open later this month.

The government states it is exploring options for providing further targeted and necessary supports for businesses and workers impacted by the latest measures.

During a Jan. 3 press conference Ford stated the new measures were designed to “slow the spread (of Omicron), because it can’t be stopped.

“It’s too contagious to stop completely.”

“While the risks for severe illness are lower with Omicron than with the previous variants of concern, it is far more transmissible and hospitalizations are expected to continue to increase placing greater pressure on our health system,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health.

He added, “It is difficult but necessary to apply additional public health and workplace safety measures to help stop the spread of the virus and protect our health system capacity. Please follow all public measures and get vaccinated with your first, second or booster dose if you have not done so already.”

The province states that “real-world experience and evidence in Ontario” indicates approximately one per cent of Omicron cases require hospital care.

“The rapid rise of Omicron cases, which may soon number in the hundreds of thousands, could result in the province’s hospital capacity becoming overwhelmed if further action isn’t taken to curb transmission,” the Jan. 3 press release states.

“When one in 100 cases goes to hospital, it means that with this rapid increase in transmission the number of new cases requiring hospitalization will also rapidly increase daily. For example, 50,000 cases per day would mean 500 hospital admissions per day, which is greater than the peak daily hospitalizations of 265 per day from last spring, when hospitals were under significant strain during the third wave of the pandemic.”

Data from the Ontario Science Table indicates that as of Jan. 3, unvaccinated individuals are six times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and 21 times more likely to end up in an ICU than individuals who have received at least two vaccine doses.