Ontario expanding booster shots and modifying vaccine proof system in face of rising COVID-19 cases and Omicron concerns
Published Friday, December 10, 2021 8:44AM EST
Last Updated Friday, December 10, 2021 4:08PM EST
The Ontario government is expanding booster shots to all Ontarians and modifying its proof-of-vaccination system amid a rise in COVID-19 cases and concerns over the more infectious Omicron variant.
“With cases expected to increase during the winter months, and as we continue to monitor the evolving global evidence around the Omicron variant, we must remain vigilant. We are still learning about the new variant, but we can expect that the months ahead may be very challenging,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said at a news conference Friday.
Ontario has seen rising case counts in recent weeks, with the current seven-day average of daily cases now standing at 1,115 compared to 866 a week ago.
Speaking alongside Elliott Friday,Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the Omicron variant now registers in about 10 per cent of positive COVID-19 tests in the province and its share could quickly rise.
“I am concerned about the rise. As of yesterday, 10 per cent of the samples detected at Public Health Ontario were positive for Omicron and it's anticipated that we'll have a significant rise in the coming weeks and in the next month and that it may become a dominant strain very soon,” Moore said.
Sources told CTV News Thursday that for the time being, the Ford government has ruled out more drastic measures such as lockdowns or widespread school closures in order to combat a rising tide of infections in the province.
Premier Doug Ford met with his cabinet Friday to decide on changes to the vaccine proof system, sources said.
QR CODE WILL BE REQUIRED FOR VACCINE PROOF
As part of the changes, Ontario is making digital or printed QR codes a mandatory part of its proof-of-vaccination system, along with the Verify Ontario app in settings where proof of vaccination is required.
The province says that certificates with QR codes are more secure than vaccine receipts that don’t include them. Critics had said the receipts without the codes could be easily forged or falsified.
“The actions we take today will help ensure that our communities stay safe this winter. That is why in consultation with the chief medical officer of health, we are taking action to further encourage vaccination and help limit the spread of COVID 19 and the Omicron variant,” Elliott said.
The change will come into effect on Jan. 4.
Effective Dec. 20, proof of vaccination will also be required for youth aged 12 to 17 in order to take part in in organized sports at recreational facilities.
As well, organizations and businesses under the proof-of-vaccination system are being advised that those with medical and clinical trial exemptions will have to present a QR code too. Notes from doctors will no longer be acceptable as proof of exemptions as of Jan. 10.
QR codes for exemptions can only be obtained from a doctor or registered nurse who submits the patient’s information directly to the local public health unit. Medical exemptions issued outside of Ontario are not eligible for an enhanced vaccine certificate.
Proof of vaccination is currently required in order to attend a variety of indoor settings, including restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theatres. The federal government also requires proof of vaccination in order to board planes and trains.
The province said Friday that it is also extending the vaccine proof program beyond Jan. 17. The government had said that it could start to wind down the program next month, but that it would depend on the public health situation in the province.
BOOSTERS EXPANDING TO ALL ONTARIANS
Third doses are also part of the strategy to help combat the rise of the Omicron variant, health officials said.
The province says all Ontarians will become eligible for booster shots as of Jan. 4, 2022, with appointments to be booked six months after receiving a second dose.
Those 50 and up are set to become eligible to book a third dose as of 8 a.m. on Dec. 13.
Early lab data has indicated that a third dose provides much better protection against the more infectious Omicron variant.
Moore said the province is working on expanding its capacity to administer doses more quickly.
“We are looking at a means by which we can enhance our capacity to deliver vaccine and we are having those active discussions,” he said. “We’re at 70,000 doses a day right now. We're trying to get up to 110-120,000 doses a day, and we'll try further.”
TOP DOCTOR ‘STRONGLY ADVISES’ LIMITING SOCIAL GATHERINGS
Moore said changes to the school break are not currently anticipated, but the province is closely monitoring the situation.
“We'll be reviewing any risk to our school settings. I do believe it's true now as it was weeks or months ago. Our schools remain safe. The best practices we put in play are keeping our children safe and the immunization strategy that we started for the five to 11 year olds will only further protect.”
But he urged people to limit social gatherings over the holidays where possible and to mask in the presence of vulnerable people, even if everyone in attendance is vaccinated.
“I know with the holidays approaching, people may be concerned what this means about getting together with family and friends,” Moore said. “Please keep your social context to a minimum. Your gatherings should be small, and you should limit the number of gatherings you attend.”
He also said people should continue to work from home wherever possible in order to limit transmission and asked employers to be flexible.
“Just as I'm asking individuals to continue practicing public health measures and get vaccinated I'm also asking businesses and organizations to remain diligent and vigilant. We are asking that employers allow their employees to work from home whenever possible,” Moore said. “Reducing mobility of people will help to reduce disease transmission.”