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New COVID measures in Ontario and Quebec, as Omicron cases climb

A health care worker. in white, giving another worker, in blue, a vaccine shot.
Ministère de la Santé et des Services sociaux Quebec.
Auxiliary nurse Nadia Knodja administers Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to Danielle Marceau, an employee of CHSLD St-Antoine, a nursing home in Quebec City on Dec. 14, 2020.

The COVID-19 omicron variant has driven case counts high in recent days across Eastern Ontario.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit, the local public health department for all of Ontario east of Ottawa between the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, reported 1,588 active cases of COVID-19 across its territory on Dec. 31. Six people are in hospital and one individual is in intensive care. The highest number of cases on Dec. 31 were in Cornwall with 506 cases. South Stormont had 142 cases and Clarence-Rockland had 132 cases.

According to EOHU Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, it cannot be confirmed or denied if employees of long-term care and retirement facilities who test positive for COVID-19 are being allowed to remain on the job.

“We have to look at the precautions,” Roumeliotis said on December 31.

Allowing asymptomatic employees who test positive to remain working could be permitted if there are extreme shortages of staff. Roumeliotis said he was not aware if a nurse at a retirement home who tested positive for COVID-19 was allowed to keep working, nor was he aware of other similar examples across the region.

However, Roumeliotis said it is possible he may permit asymptomatic long-term care and retirement facility employees who test positive in the future to remain on the job.

“I’m not ruling it out.”

The Québec government recently announced it will allow asymptomatic health care workers who test positive for COVID-19 to continue working if circumstances warrant.

There were COVID-19 outbreaks at six retirement and nursing homes across the EOHU’s jurisdiction as of December 31.

The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit, which includes Brockville, Prescott, and Gananoque in its territory, had 613 active cases of COVID-19 among its residents on Dec. 31. The City of Ottawa’s public health department reported 693 active cases of COVID-19 within its jurisdiction.

The Eastern Ontario Heath Unit (EOHU) is advising the public that effective Dec. 31, Ontario is updating its public health measures and guidance as the number of Omicron variant COVID-19 cases across the province rapidly rises.

During a special press conference on Friday morning, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis said the COVID-19 positivity rate for the EOHU’s territory is 21 percent and the Ontario positivity rate is 30 percent. He said most outbreaks in long-term care and retirement facilities are among asymptomatic staff.

In an effort to protect the province’s most vulnerable residents, Ontario is shifting its strategy and making publicly funded PCR testing only available to high-risk individuals who are symptomatic and/or at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Workers and residents in the highest risk settings and other vulnerable populations will continue to have access to PCR testing.

However, members of the public who have mild symptoms and are not part of a high-risk population are being asked not to seek testing. As such, individuals with a positive result from a rapid antigen test will no longer have to get a PCR or rapid molecular test to confirm their COVID status. Health units will no longer perform contact tracing and case management for a positive case in a low risk setting.

“Testing was overwhelmed,” said Roumeliotis.

The shift in case and contact management will allow health units to redirect some staff members towards the vaccination effort, where the need is greatest.

Ontario is also changing the isolation period for people who contract COVID-19 as research is demonstrating that healthy individuals who contract the virus are most infectious in the two days before they start having symptoms and the three days afterward.

Fully vaccinated individuals who have COVID-19, as well as children under 12, must isolate for 5 days from the onset of symptoms. Their household members must also isolate for 5 days. Contacts from outside the affected household must self-monitor for symptoms for 10 days.

Individuals who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or immunocompromised must isolate for 10 days.

Effective immediately, Ontario will make fourth doses of mRNA vaccines available to all residents of long-term care homes, retirement homes, Elder Care Lodges and other congregate care settings. In order for residents to receive their fourth dose, a minimum of three months or 84 days must have passed since their third dose.

In order to bring in additional measures to ensure the safety of students in Ontario’s schools, the province is delaying the return to school by two days. Students who were set to return on Jan. 3 will head back to school on Jan. 5.

As of Dec. 31, Ontario is restricting spectator capacity in large indoor settings to 50 percent, or 1,000, whichever is less. The new limit will apply to spectator areas of sports and recreational fitness activities, concert venues and theaters.

Roumeliotis emphasized on Dec. 31 that vaccination is still effective against the omicron variant of COVID-19. Even if vaccination does not entirely prevent illness, it will prevent severe disease in 80 to 90 percent of people. He said people who are not vaccinated are 20-40 times more likely to end up in intensive care if they are infected with COVID-19.

Québec cracks down

On Dec. 30, Québec Premier François Legault and Minister of Health and Social Services Christian Dubé, announced several measures designed to get the rapid spread of COVID-19 under control across Québec.

According to the Institut National De Sante Public Du Québec (INSPQ), 86,866 active cases of COVID-19 across Québec as of Dec. 30. There were 939 people in hospital across Québec due to COVID-19 as of Dec. 30 and 139 patients were in intensive care.

The new measures announced by Legault and Dubé are in addition to those already in force. A curfew is in effect between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. nightly across Québec. Penalties ranging from $1,000 to $6,000 will apply for offenders.

On Friday, Roumeliotis said he is concerned about Québec residents coming to Ontario communities near the provincial boundary to shop and dine and how that could affect the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re going to keep an eye on that,” said Roumeliotis.

In Québec, private gatherings in homes must be limited to occupants of the same residence.

The start of the school year in elementary, secondary, general adult education and vocational training has been postponed to Jan. 17 in all regions of Québec. Places of worship across Québec are closed, with an exception for funerals which must be limited to 25 people.

Outdoor events in Québec are still authorized, but with a maximum of 250 people. Indoor dining rooms at all restaurants in Québec are closed. Delivery and take-out orders are still possible. All stores in Québec will be closed on Sundays, except for certain businesses such as convenience stores, gas stations and pharmacies.

Indoor sports across Québec are suspended, unless they are practiced by a single person, by two people, or by the occupants of the same residence. The indoor facilities of downhill ski centers and snowmobile relays will be open only to allow people to warm up and have access to the bathrooms. It will be forbidden to consume food inside ski facility buildings. Food services may still offer take-out orders.