Students will be returning to in-class learning on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, only two days later than previously scheduled, announced Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Dr. Kieran Moore, in an online press conference this afternoon. This, along with several changes to testing and isolation guidelines, were the main topics of his Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021 discussion.
“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. Moore.
“Because of the rapid transmission of Omicron, many jurisdictions have had to adjust their testing strategies, and Ontario is no different,” said the CMOH. Because of this, beginning tomorrow, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, publicly-funded PCR testing will only be available for vulnerable individuals, including those with significant medical issues, who are symptomatic or at risk of severe disease from COVID-19.
This includes testing for the purposes of confirming COVID-19 diagnosis prior to beginning treatments, and for workers, residents, and others in the highest-risk settings such as hospitals, long-term care, retirement homes, and congregate living settings.
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, and there will be no testing for asymptomatic individuals in the community.
“This updated eligibility will ensure that those at highest risk of severe outcomes, and those caring for them, have timely access to test results,” Moore expressed.
“This, we recognize, reflects some significant changes from our previous COVID testing strategy, which meant that anyone with symptoms could receive a PCR test. But the Omicron variant is rapidly spreading, and we must preserve these resources for those who need them the most,” he continued.
“I do hope that Ontarians will understand that we must together protect this limited resource for those that need it the most. Ontario also currently has a limited supply of rapid antigen tests, which is true around the globe, and these are being preserved to prioritize for healthcare and high-risk settings to keep these settings safe.”
This means that, according to the new guidelines, “if you have symptoms of COVID-19 and are not eligible for a PCR test, and do not have access to a rapid antigen test, you should assume that you have COVID-19 and isolate,” Dr. Moore explained.
Ontario is also changing the required isolation period, he said, “based on growing evidence that generally healthy people with COVID-19 are most infectious for the two days before their symptoms develop, and for three days after their symptoms [have developed].”
Individuals who are vaccinated, as well as children under 12, will be required to isolate for five days following the onset of symptoms. This also applies to their immediate household contacts. The isolation can end after five days if symptoms are resolved or improving for at least 24 hours and all Public Health safety measures, such as masking and physical distancing, are followed.
Dr. Moore clarified, “If you have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and you are fully vaccinated, have no symptoms, and don’t live with a positive case, you are advised to continue to monitor for symptoms for 10 days from the time that you interacted last with that individual and adhere to all Public Health measures when outside your home.”
Individuals who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or immunocompromised will be required to isolate for 10 days, as the risk of the virus shedding continues in these individuals.
Also, individuals who work or live in high-risk healthcare settings can return to work after 10 days from their last exposure or symptom onset, or from their date of diagnosis. But, he pointed out, “to ensure sufficient staffing levels, workers have the opportunity to return to work after isolating for seven days based on a negative PCR test on day six, or two negative rapid tests at day six and seven.”
“Ontarians have been brilliant at protecting each other,” said the CMOH, “and I know we’ll continue to do so through the basic Public Health measures of masking, hand hygiene, and distancing.”
Dr. Moore went on, “When it comes to case and contact management, I want to thank our incredible Public Health professionals for their tireless efforts.”
Moore, the former Medical Officer of Health for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Public Health, then referenced reporting from that Public Health Unit, as well as from Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) as being instrumental to the new changes in reporting that will hopefully give a clearer picture of how to approach Omicron.
“As we continue to see hospitalizations and ICU admissions increase, many individuals have noted the importance of distinguishing between patients admitted to hospital or the ICU for COVID-19 versus those admitted for other reasons such as a broken bone or appendicitis, but also test positive for COVID-19,” Moore explained. “As a result, we have asked hospitals to update their daily reporting to include this important information and expect to begin receiving it, as well as adjusting our public reporting, in the coming days.”
Omicron, he said, “is a new enemy we continue to prepare for, 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 the Ontario hospitals in ICU capacity.”
Return to schools
“I know many parents and students are anxious to hear about the return to school,” said Dr. Moore. “I and colleagues from across Ontario have always maintained that schools should be the last to close and the first to open. [Having schools open] is critical to the positive mental health and academic success of our children.”
He then confirmed that students will be returning to in-person learning on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, saying, “This will provide our schools with extra time to begin to put in place additional health and safety measures, including deploying additional masking options for students and educators, and further improving air ventilation in schools. These and other measures, including updating the COVID-19 school and childcare screener, and asking students, parents, and staff for rigorous screening and monitoring of symptoms, creates more layers of protection to keep schools safe and open for in-person learning.”
“In conclusion,” said Moore, “I understand that we’re all tired and just want this pandemic to be over. Unfortunately, though, we need to get through this Omicron wave. And we are asking even more of you as we prioritize our testing [and] prioritize our case contact management. [We] ask you to take all the precautions necessary to protect yourselves and your families. Omicron has presented us with new challenges; we’ve had to be flexible and adaptive in the face of this new variant. I’m hopeful that with the effort we are putting in now, 2022 will prove to be a year that we are able to get the better of this virus. I wish you all a very happy and safe New Year.”