Easing of restrictions will be 'gradual' and 'phased,' Ontario's top public health doctor says
Published Wednesday, January 19, 2022 7:36AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 19, 2022 5:13PM EST
Ontario’s top public health doctor says he is confident that the Ford government’s upcoming plans to ease public health restrictions in the province will be “gradual.”
Dr. Kieran Moore made the comments at a news conference on Wednesday morning, where he, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, and Ontario Health CEO Matthew Anderson provided an update on the current situation involving COVID-19 in the province.
In response to news that the Ford government will be releasing more information later this week about plans to ease current restrictions, Moore provided very few additional details.
“I am confident that it will be phased, will be gradual, and will be based on data and will follow the prudence they've done in the past on that staged and phased reopening,” he said. “We will continue though to monitor any risks of increased transmission in the community.”
Ontario reverted back to a modified version of Step 2 of the Ford government’s reopening plan on Jan. 5, closing indoor dining rooms, gyms, movie theatres, and reducing private social gathering to a maximum of five indoors. The province has said these restrictions will remain in place until at least Jan. 26.
Concerns over the spread of the more infectious Omicron variant also prompted the province to delay the return of in-person learning by two weeks. Students across the province are beginning to return to the classroom this week.
Elliott confirmed that Premier Doug Ford will be providing “more clarity” later this week about exactly what restrictions will be eased but said officials wanted to provide information today about the data informing those decisions.
“As a first step, we want to be clear about some of the data we are using to inform the chief medical officer of health’s recommendations and cabinet deliberations,” she said.
“When our government announced the introduction of measures to blunt transmission of Omicron, we were clear that they were time limited. We know that people and businesses need certainty on what the future looks like.”
On Wednesday afternoon, multiple sources told CTV News Toronto that the Ford government is planning to ease some COVID-19 restrictions, beginning with allowing restaurants and bars to resume indoor dining on Jan. 31 at 50 per cent capacity.
She said the province is seeing “glimmers of hope” and some key metrics suggest that Ontario is moving in the right direction. She noted that at the start of the Omicron wave, Ontario hospitals were seeing an “alarming” increase in hospitalizations, with a doubling time of every seven days.
“We are beginning to see signs of stabilization. Omicron cases are expected to peak this month with a peak in hospitalizations and ICU admissions to follow,” she said.
“New hospitalizations are slowing and are now doubling closer to every two weeks. Experience in our hospitals has confirmed Omicron is not as severe as Delta, with far fewer patients requiring intensive care than in previous waves, despite much higher rates of transmission in the community.”
Moore noted that the average length of stay in the hospital for Omicron is about five days, compared to nine days with the Delta variant.
During Wednesday’s news conference, Anderson said total ICU occupancy has remained relatively constant over the past few weeks.
“We're also seeing that patients have a shorter length of stay in our ICU and this is helping to limit the overall rise of the numbers in our ICUs on the acute care side,” he said.
“Where we have our biggest challenge is in our ward beds or hospital beds. We currently have more than 4,100 COVID positive patients in our hospitals. This is the highest total of hospitalizations we've seen throughout the pandemic.”
He added that over the last seven days, there has been a “slowing of that growth.”
“It's still growing, but the rate that it is growing each day seems to be slowing,” he said. “These are encouraging signs.”
He was quick to point out that that hospitals will not see the benefit of this “for a number of more weeks.”
“We still have hospitals that are under very challenging circumstances as we deal with these rising numbers,” Anderson said. “Our health system will likely continue to experience challenges through February.”
When asked if it was premature to begin lifting restrictions before seeing the impact of reopening schools, Elliott said there is “very little evidence” that schools are leading to high levels of transmission.
“We know that there's high levels of community transmission right now. But in schools themselves, as students go there, they have been made as safe as possible,” she said.
Moore said the key indicators the province is currently watching is health-care capacity, outbreaks in long-term care, and the province’s test positivity rate, which he said has begun to “stabilize” between 20 and 25 per cent.
“Considered alongside other data we track, such as capacity and length of stay in hospitals and ICU, this is an encouraging sign that we may be reaching the peak of Omicron transmission in Ontario in the coming weeks,” he said. “While this gives me hope, we must remain cautious and humble in the face of this aggressive virus.”
On Tuesday, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, cautioned against lifting restrictions too quickly.
“Ensuring the success of in-person learning for the rest of the school year relies on seeing solid evidence of an improving COVID-19 situation overall before introducing changes that are likely to lead to more in-person interaction,” she said.
“We've learned from our own experiences and from the experiences of other jurisdictions that going too quickly risks the progress we have made and in some cases has forced us to go back to more restrictions. We have seen and felt just how disruptive this is.”
Case counts have skyrocketed in the province over the past month but due to testing restrictions, the province has been unable to provide an accurate count of the true number of new infections.
The scientific director of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table told CP24 on Tuesday that while he hopes to see COVID-19 hospitalizations peak this week, the limits on PCR testing access in Ontario are so significant he and his colleagues are no longer able to generate new modelling projections.
At a news conference on Wednesday morning, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said he hopes to see restrictions lifted soon.
"This has been very, very hard on our small businesses. It's been hard on the community not having recreation centres that are allowed to be open," he said.
"So I hope that we're going to see a loosening of the restrictions given the sacrifice our community has made and I'd like to report we are seeing progress and our hospitals. We are seeing a decline in hospitalizations. We are seeing a decline in ICU numbers."