With public health indicators showing improvement in Ontario, provincial officials are now reviewing timelines for easing restrictions meant to curb the spread of COVID-19, the province’s top doctor says.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said he is “pleased to report” that public health indicators in the province are showing an improvement.
“We can now see that the Omicron peak is behind us,” Moore said. “We’re in a very good position to reconsider timelines.”
Moore said the province is examining when additional public health measures, including masking and proof-of-vaccination policies, might be eased.
He said these talks are “ongoing” and the province will have more to say in the coming days.
“We will be reviewing the evidence … and the evidence is showing we’re making remarkable improvement in all the key metrics in Ontario,” Moore said.
Ontario reported 1,897 hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 Thursday, marking the first time that number has dipped below 2,000 since early January, when the Omicron wave ramped up.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Twitter Thursday that 56 per cent of those people were admitted to the hospital specifically for COVID-19 treatment, and 44 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have tested positive for the virus.
The number of people in ICU with COVID-19 also dipped slightly, dropping from 449 to 445. Elliott said 76 per cent of patients were admitted to intensive care specifically for the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons and tested positive.
The province is also reporting 44 new deaths.
Now that hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and other virus indicators are improving, the province is lifting a directive that paused all surgeries deemed non-urgent and is allowing them to resume gradually.
Moore said dates for further lifting restrictions on businesses and social gatherings — set to happen in stages on Feb. 21 and March. 14 — could be reviewed next week.
Province sticking with ‘gradual approach,’ Moore says
Ontario administered 47,423 vaccine doses yesterday, for a total of 31,153,087. Among eligible Ontarians age five and up, 89.26 per cent have received a first dose of vaccine, while 84.64 per cent have received a second. As well, 55.62 per cent of people 18 and up have received a third shot.
There were 17 resident deaths at long-term care homes, more than 40 per cent of which were reporting virus outbreaks.
Ontario isn’t reporting data on COVID-19 cases in schools, but four schools were closed for operational reasons and 161 reported absences of 30 per cent or higher yesterday.
Moore’s comments came a day after Elliott said the province wasn’t considering lifting mask rules or its vaccine passport system affecting businesses, as some other Canadian provinces have begun to do.
The health minister didn’t say when those policies would end, but said the province expects mask rules will remain in place for “some time.”
Moore said any changes to the province’s reopening timelines would continue to follow a “gradual, phased approach.”
More extracurriculars can resume in schools
Meanwhile, high-contact sports, choir and other extracurriculars can now resume in Ontario schools after a temporary pause on the activities when students returned to in-person learning amid the Omicron wave.
Some low-contact sports that allow for physical distancing, like tennis, have been ongoing in schools. However, high-contact sports such as basketball and volleyball were paused in January due to COVID-19 risk.
Singing and the playing of wind instruments were also not permitted but will now be allowed.
The province said participants in extracurriculars still have to wear masks while on school premises but can remove them temporarily “where required,” while playing instruments or sports.
Advisory table provides rapid testing guidance
Also Thursday, Ontario’s expert science advisers said rapid antigen tests don’t detect COVID-19 infections with the Omicron variant as reliably as they did with the Delta strain, but changing the way the tests are performed can boost their sensitivity.
The science advisory table said in a brief today that the rapid tests, which involve nasal swabs, are less sensitive for Omicron, especially in the first one or two days after infection.
But, they say the tests are better at detecting Omicron if people swab both cheeks, followed by the back of the tongue or throat, then both nostrils.
The advisers say a single negative rapid test is not conclusive and “should not be used as a green light for abandoning or reducing precautions,” but a positive result can be considered positive for COVID-19.
Current provincial guidance allows people to end isolation — for example, if they develop symptoms — if they receive negative results on two rapid tests 24 to 48 hours apart.
The science table also cites a study suggesting that sensitivity for detecting Omicron varies between different commercial tests.