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Ontario regions bring in stricter measures, booster bookings ramp up in Omicron race


The fast-spreading Omicron variant prompted several Ontario regions to announce new public health measures Monday in a bid to control surging cases ahead of the holidays.

The moves came as millions of residents between the ages of 50 and 69 became eligible for COVID-19 boosters and health officials examined the possibility of offering third doses to even more cohorts in the fight against the new variant.

Ontario reported 1,536 new COVID-19 infections Monday and the province's expert pandemic advisers estimated that Omicron now makes up 30 per cent of the daily caseload, just weeks after it was first detected. Cases of the variant are doubling every three days, the group said.

In the Kingston, Waterloo and London regions, as well as Toronto, officials announced several new measures aimed at tackling the sharp rise in Omicron cases.

The top doctor in the Kingston region -- where community spread of Omicron was confirmed -- brought in new rules that limit social gatherings to groups of five until at least Dec. 20. He also ordered restaurants to close to indoor dining between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m. and seat only up to four at a table.

Dr. Piotr Oglaza said the measures, taking effect at 6 p.m. Monday, were being brought in to buy time and get a sense of Omicron's impact before more measures are potentially brought in.

"We are addressing the dire need to break the chain of infection in the highest-risk settings that we've seen implicated in the spread of Omicron," he said during a news conference.

Early results indicate Omicron already makes up about half the region's cases, Oglaza said, though current strain on the area's hospitals -- which as of Monday had the province's highest number of intensive care COVID-19 patients -- began earlier, with Delta variant cases.

The hospital situation, which has seen critical patients transferred out of the region, prompted a call for residents to take precautions and watch for symptoms to avoid a reduction in services.

Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease doctor with Queen's University in Kingston said there is "no question" that Omicron will be dominant locally within a week, noting that the region is probably a few days ahead of the rest of the province in terms of case trends.

"If you want to define dominance as anything over 50 per cent, we may very well be there at the moment" he said.

Waterloo Region's top doctor made a similar prediction on Monday. The region confirmed four cases of the variant but said there were more than 500 high-risk contacts associated with nine youth sports team outbreaks with suspected Omicron cases.

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said she expects Omicron will be dominant within a week. The health unit is recommending people work from home, as Ontario's top doctor advised last week, and urged schools to pause all sports and extracurriculars.

In London, Ont., the health unit said COVID-19 was spreading rapidly and it was treating all cases as the Omicron variant. That means all cases and close contacts must isolate for 10 days and get tested regardless of their vaccination status.

In Toronto, city employees were informed Monday that a return-to-work plan announced weeks earlier wouldn't go ahead. City Manager Chris Murray wrote that the change was made following advice from Ontario's top doctor.

Earlier Monday, booster dose eligibility opened up for 3.4 million Ontarians aged 50 and older, although technical issues left some unable to book shots.

Many social media users complained of problems, with some saying they waited online to enter the portal but gave up after dealing with crashes and error messages.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the "intermittent technical issue" that came amid "high volumes of demand" was resolved about five hours after bookings opened. By 3 p.m., Elliott said on Twitter that 115,000 Ontarians had signed up to get boosters through the online portal.

Residents can also book through the provincial phone line, at pharmacies and some primary care sites and through public health units using their own systems.

Hilkene said in a separate statement that the Health Ministry is working with local public health units to ramp up booster vaccination capacity as more information about Omicron emerges.

Signs of the variant's rapid growth have led to calls for faster access to boosters for all residents.

But experts told The Canadian Press that the variant is likely spreading so quickly that an accelerated timeline for boosters won't get ahead of, or stop, the wave of infections that's coming, as essentially everyone may be exposed to the variant.

Infectious diseases physician Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti with the University of Toronto said prioritizing the most vulnerable, including older people, front-line essential workers, those with underlying conditions and their immediate household members is the right approach.

With an Omicron wave on the horizon, he said capacity for boosters, tests and case management will need to be targeted at areas of greatest need because old pandemic measures -- including lockdowns and other restrictions -- won't be as effective.

"Omicron is going to be barrelling through here like a freight train," Chakrabarti said.

"Do we really have a lot of control over what's about to happen, in terms of this wave washing over us? The answer is, I don't think so. I do think that this is going to happen whatever we do because it's just so transmissible."

He noted, however that Canada's relatively high vaccination rate will protect many from the worst outcomes like hospitalization and death.

Chakrabarti and other experts and public health leaders say they expect testing and contact tracing resources will be maxed out during the coming Omicron wave, based on what's been seen elsewhere. In that event, he said it would make sense for tests to prioritize high-risk settings like long-term care homes, hospitals and essential workplaces.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 13, 2021. Top Stories

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