Ontario Updating Public Health Measures and Guidance in Response to Omicron
TORONTO — In response to the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the Ontario government, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, is taking further action to provide additional protection to high-risk settings, and continue to safeguard hospitals and ICU capacity as the province continues to rapidly accelerate its booster dose rollout. Based on the latest evidence and Ontario’s high rate of vaccination, the province is also updating testing and isolation guidelines to protect our most vulnerable and maintain the stability of critical workforces, including frontline health care workers, first responders and critical infrastructure like energy and food and supply chains.
“As cases continue to rise at a rapid rate and evidence on the Omicron variant evolves, our response needs to evolve alongside other jurisdictions to ensure those living and working in our highest-risk settings are protected,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “Ontario’s cautious approach and high vaccination rates have helped keep hospital and intensive care unit capacity stable to date. Focusing our testing and case and contact management on high-risk settings will help limit transmission, maintain critical workforces, and ensure timely access to PCR testing where it is needed the most. Anyone who is sick should protect their community by staying home.”
Updated Testing and Isolation Guidelines in Response to Omicron
In consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Ontario is updating its COVID-19 testing and isolation guidelines. These updates follow recent changes in other jurisdictions in Canada and the United Kingdom to ensure publicly funded testing and case and contact management resources are available for the highest-risk settings and to protect the most vulnerable and help keep critical services running.
Effective December 31, publicly-funded PCR testing will be available only for high-risk individuals who are symptomatic and/or are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including for the purposes of confirming a COVID-19 diagnosis to begin treatment, and workers and residents in the highest risk settings, as well as vulnerable populations. Members of the general public with mild symptoms are asked not to seek testing. A full list of eligible individuals can be found here.
In addition, most individuals with a positive result from a rapid antigen test will no longer be required or encouraged to get a confirmatory PCR or rapid molecular test.
Ontario is also changing the required isolation period 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. Individuals with COVID-19 who are vaccinated, as well as children under 12, will be required to isolate for five days following the onset of symptoms. Their household contacts are also required to isolate with them. These individuals can end isolation after five days if their symptoms are improved for at least 24 hours and all public health and safety measures, such as masking and physical distancing, are followed. Non-household contacts are required to self-monitor for ten days.
Individuals who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated or immunocompromised will be required to isolate for 10 days. While individuals who work or live in high-risk health care settings are recommended to return to work after 10 days from their last exposure or symptom onset or from their date of diagnosis, to ensure sufficient staffing levels workers will have the opportunity to return to work after isolating for seven days with negative PCR or rapid antigen test results, which will be provided by the province through the health care setting.
As of December 20, a total of 50 million rapid antigen tests have been deployed since the beginning of the pandemic, with the vast majority (approximately 41 million) deployed to priority sectors, including hospitals, long-term care and retirement homes and schools. In addition to Ontario directly procuring additional rapid tests where possible, the province is continuing to urge the federal government to make more rapid tests available to provinces as quickly as possible. The province is also evaluating the potential role of antibody testing, including an analysis of how it is used in other jurisdictions, to provide another tool in the fight against COVID-19.
Return to Class Following the Winter Break
In response to the highly-transmissible Omicron variant, Ontario is putting in place additional health and safety measures to create more layers of protection to keep schools as safe as possible for in-person learning, which is critical to the positive mental health and academic success of students.
The Children’s Health Coalition – representing Ontario’s children’s hospitals, mental health agencies and rehabilitation centres – has emphasized that in-person education is critical to the mental health, development and well-being of children and youth. Students are set to return to schools on January 5, 2022 for school boards previously scheduled to return on January 3 to provide schools additional time to prepare for the public health measures announced today. The following additional measures will help ensure safer schools and protect in-person learning:
- Updating the COVID-19 school and child care screener ahead of the return to school on January 5 and asking students, parents and staff for rigorous screening and monitoring of symptoms.
- Providing non-fit-tested N95 masks for staff in schools and licensed child care settings as an optional alternative to medical/surgical masks, and additional supply of high-quality three-ply cloth masks that are strongly encouraged and free for students and children in January.
- Deploying an additional 3,000 standalone HEPA filter units to school boards, building on the existing 70,000 HEPA filter units and ventilation devices already in schools.
- Continuing PCR testing eligibility for symptomatic elementary and secondary students, education staff and participating private and First Nation operated schools who have received a PCR self-collection kit through their school.
- Starting in January, temporarily permitting only low-contact indoor sports and safe extra-curricular activities.
- Updating COVID-19 reporting requirements for school boards and child care in January.
- Supporting the projected hiring of over 2,000 staff, funded by a $304 million allocation for second semester that includes additional teachers, custodians, and mental health workers.
Further Reducing the Spread of COVID-19 in Larger Indoor Settings
To further strengthen its response to Omicron and reduce opportunities for close contact as the province gets as many vaccines into arms as possible, effective 12:01 a.m. on Friday, December 31, 2021, Ontario is restricting spectator capacity to 50 per cent of the usual seating capacity or 1,000 people, whichever is less, in the indoor areas of the following settings:
- Spectator areas of facilities used for sports and recreational fitness activities (e.g., sporting events);
- Concert venues; and
The government and the Chief Medical Officer of Health will continue to monitor the data to determine when it is safe to lift capacity limits in these settings.
Offering Fourth Doses to Long-Term Care Residents
Based on the recommendations from the Ontario Immunization Advisory Committee, effective immediately the province will be making fourth doses of mRNA vaccines available to residents of long-term care homes, retirement homes, Elder Care Lodges and other congregate care settings if at least three months, or 84 days, have passed since their third dose.
In response to the uniquely high-risk nature of long-term care settings for Ontario’s most vulnerable individuals, the province is also mandating third doses for all staff, students, volunteers, caregivers and support workers by January 28, 2022 for those currently eligible for a booster, and will be requiring visitors to provide proof of a booster dose once the temporary pause on general visitors is lifted.
As of December 13, 2021, all staff had to be fully vaccinated to work in long-term care homes, unless they have a valid medical exemption. To date, nearly 47 per cent of eligible staff and nearly 86 per cent of eligible residents have received their third dose booster. The province will continue to monitor long-term care homes and adjust measures as necessary to keep residents safe.
The government and the Chief Medical Officer of Health will continue to monitor trends in key public health and health care indicators, including emerging data on the Omicron variant and will continue to take swift action to ensure the health and safety of Ontarians.
- PCR testing for eligible individuals is available at over 220 assessment centres or community labs, in addition to over 600 participating pharmacies, many of which offer pick-up/drop-off of self-collection kits.
- To mitigate transmission of the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, on December 19, 2021 the province implemented a 50 per cent capacity limit in select indoor public settings and has reduced informal social gathering limits to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors.
- As of December 29, 2021, Ontario has administered more than three million booster doses, including to 42 per cent of individuals aged 50 and over.
- Effective January 4, 2022, the use of the enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate with QR code and the Verify Ontario app will be required where proof of vaccination is required. Download by visiting https://covid-19.ontario.ca/get-proof/, or call the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre at 1-833-943-3900 to have your vaccine certificate mailed.
- Effective January 10, 2022, organizations and businesses that require provincial proof-of-vaccination system will no longer accept physician notes. Individuals who have an eligible medical exemption or are participating in an active Health Canada Approved COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial must have their exemption verified and integrated into an enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate with QR code.
- In response to the increased demand for vaccine doses, effective December 26, all GO-VAXX mobile buses will be scheduling appointments through Ontario’s booking portal. Walk-ins will no longer be accepted, as appointments will be required. To book an appointment, please go through Ontario’s booking portal or call the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre at 1-833-943-3900.
“Our government is taking action to protect our most vulnerable and preserve public health and health system capacity throughout the province so that patients can continue to receive the care they need. I encourage everyone to help protect our communities by staying home if you are sick, following the updated isolation guidance, and getting your first, second or booster dose as soon as possible.”
– Christine Elliott
Deputy Premier and Minister of Health
“Students are returning to safer schools – with enhanced ventilation, high-quality masks, and one of the highest vaccine rates in Canada. We have followed the clear advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and pediatric hospitals by ensuring students safely return to learning in-class, alongside their friends and teachers. We are taking nothing for granted, which is why we are making available better quality masks, additional air ventilation units, and over $300 million to hire more teachers, custodians, and mental health workers, to ensure Ontario students remain as safe as possible.”
– Stephen Lecce
Minister of Education
“Mandating third vaccine doses for long-term care staff and caregivers and offering fourth doses to residents is an important step our government is taking to protect long-term care staff and residents. I ask all Ontarians to help us protect our most vulnerable by getting your booster as soon as you are eligible.”
– Rod Phillips
Minister of Long-Term Care