COVID-19: Ontario pauses reopening as vaccination rate drops off

"I'm sorry to say it's going to be a difficult fall and winter," Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said today


Ontario has put the brakes on the economic reopening plan because the vaccination campaign has stalled, the province’s top doctor said today.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore told reporters during a news conference at Queen’s Park on Tuesday that there’s been a “sudden drop-off” in vaccination rates in the past several weeks. The highly transmissible Delta variant is now over 90 per cent of the detected virus samples in the province, he added, and rates of illness and hospitalizations are going up.

“It was unexpected to have such a sudden drop-off,” Moore explained. “We must do more in the face of the Delta variant… We must take assertive action to protect the health and safety of all Ontarians, especially as we move closer to a return to school and the cooler weather drives us indoors.”

The province will now remain in step 3 of the reopening plan, which means mandatory masking and physical distancing rules will remain in indoor settings. Outdoor social gatherings and organized public events are capped at 100 people and indoor gatherings have a limit of 25 people. There are also capacity rules for restaurants, museums, movie theatres, gyms, retail, personal care services and other sectors.

“I’m sorry to say it’s going to be a difficult fall and winter,” he said. “But the risk will be decreased the higher our immunization rates are.”

To date, just over 82 per cent of eligible Ontarians age 12 and up have had one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and 74 per cent are fully immunized.

Previously, the province had laid out vaccination thresholds that needed to be met before public health restrictions could be lifted.

Mandatory vaccinations for health-care workers, teachers

Next month, the province will roll out a “suite” of mandatory vaccination policies for health-care workers, teachers, child-care workers and other public employees, Moore said.

“We need to get our vaccination policies in place and get our vaccination rates up,” he said. “We need to be proactive to avoid the reactive closures that result in significant impacts on our mental, physical, social and economic well being.”

The first round of mandatory vaccination policies will take effect on September 7. The government will first mandate vaccines for workers in hospitals, home and community service providers and ambulance services.

Employees in these sectors must either provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or a documented medical reason for not being vaccinated. Employers must also offer an educational session about the benefits and risks of COVID-19 vaccination.

If an individual does not provide proof of full vaccination, they must undergo regular rapid COVID-19 testing and “demonstrate continued negative results,” Moore said.

He characterized the directive as the “minimal standard,” but organizations have the authority to go “above and beyond” the government policies.

Premier Doug Ford’s government is also finalizing a mandatory vaccination policy for all employees of publicly funded school boards as well as staff in licensed child-care settings, he added.

Staff who are not fully immunized for COVID-19 will have to undergo rapid testing, the cost of which will be covered by the federal government.

“Vaccination policies in our educational sector will be crucial as we look to minimize the impact COVID-19 could have on our youth, children and young adults,” Moore said, adding policies will also be implemented for post-secondary schools and retirement homes.

He added public health officials are in “active discussions” with the Ministry of Education on having an immunization policy for students as well. Currently, Ontario’s Immunization Of School Pupils Act mandates parents report the immunization status of children.

Ontario also plans to roll out mandatory vaccination policies for congregate care settings, such as residential and community services for adults, and community-based service providers for children with special needs.

More information on those policies is coming in the days and weeks ahead, he said.

Additionally, all children turning 12 before the end of 2021 will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines. To date, people age 12 and up have been eligible to be vaccinated.

Breakthrough cases tend to be older: Moore

The province will also begin offering third doses of COVID-19 vaccines – or “booster shots” – to vulnerable Ontarians, including transplant recipients, patients with hematological or blood cancers on active treatment.

Moore said the province plans to give boosters to residents of high-risk congregate settings such as long-term care, retirement homes and First Nations elder care lodges.

Breakthrough cases – infections in people who have two doses and occur 14 days after the second shot – typically involve people who are older and more vulnerable, he added.

Moore said he is recommending residents of long-term care facilities have the third dose because data shows that antibodies (proteins made after vaccination that fight off infection) “have tended to drop off in that population in the four-to-five months after their last dose.”

He noted that no vaccine is 100 per cent effective, and Ontario’s data shows that the vaccines are in the mid-80 percentage range when it comes to protecting from the Delta variant.

Earlier this month, Public Health Ontario reported that the number of breakthrough infections accounted for 0.6 per cent of cases between December 14, 2020 and August 7, 2021. More than 95 per cent of confirmed cases over the same period were unvaccinated.

Breakthrough cases account for 0.8 per cent of hospitalizations and 1.2 per cent of deaths, the report found.

Ontario reported a daily increase of 348 cases on Tuesday after five consecutive days of new infections rising above the 500 mark. Of today’s cases, 203 are unvaccinated, 49 are partially vaccinated and 79 are fully vaccinated.

The seven-day average for new infections is now 473 and there are 127 patients in intensive care units due to COVID-19.

@nowtoronto

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