Ontario is moving schools online and pausing non-urgent surgeries as part of its bid to slow the spread of COVID-19 as the Omicron variant drives infections to record levels and threatens hospital capacity.
Premier Doug Ford announced the plan Monday along with other restrictions on businesses and gatherings aimed at controlling the variant, which he said is projected to strain hospital resources in the coming weeks.
“Omicron case counts are rising exponentially across the province,” Ford told a news conference. “We’re bracing for impact.”
Ford said recent data show that about one per cent of people infected with Omicron require hospitalization, but the variant is so infectious that the sheer number of cases could still threaten to overwhelm the health system.
“The math isn’t on our side,” he said.
Ontario reported 13,578 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, days after reporting a record-breaking daily tally of more than 18,000 cases with Public Health Ontario has said actual case counts are likely much higher due to policy changes that have made COVID-19 tests less accessible.
Ford said the decision to close schools, a move that would last at least two weeks, was taken because the province couldn’t guarantee schools would be fully staffed with so many teachers expected to be off sick.
Other measures taking effect Wednesday will be in effect for at least 21 days and will be reassessed based on public health trends.
On Wednesday, the province’s chief medical officer is set to reinstate a directive ordering hospitals to pause all non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries to preserve critical care capacity. That measure had been taken at earlier waves in the pandemic, contributing to a large backlog of procedures the health system had been working to clear in recent months.
Elliott said the decision was made due to staffing pressures and the need for bed spaces in light of Omicron’s growth across the province.
The chief executive officer of Ontario Health, which oversees the province’s health system, said the directive would affect between 8,000 and 10,000 procedures a week.
“It was a tough decision, a big cost, but something that is necessary given what we’re seeing in the numbers,” Matt Anderson said.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 1,232 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 210 people in intensive care as of Monday.
Indoor dining rooms, gyms and other indoor gathering spaces must close on Wednesday, while personal care services and retail stores will be limited to 50 per cent capacity and indoor social gatherings will be capped at five people.
Employers are asked to let employees work remotely “unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site.”
The government said free child care will be provided for frontline workers with school-aged children. The decision to move to virtual learning comes less than a week after the government said it would open schools in person on Wednesday.
Also announced Monday was an expanded rebate program for businesses affected by the new slate of closures.
The government said certain businesses ordered to close will be reimbursed for 100 per cent of property tax and energy costs, and those that must reduce capacity to 50 per cent will receive a rebate payment for half those expenses.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2022.