Ontarians living in congregated settings like long-term care homes and retirement homes can get the fourth dose of the mRNA vaccine if three months have passed since they received their third dose.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, made the announcement at a press conference on Thursday, as the province takes precautionary measures to limit the spread of the new Omicron variant.
In addition, Ontario also mandated that any staff, students, volunteers, caregivers, or support workers working at long-term care residences must get a third booster dose by Jan. 28.
Moore said that while Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, the good news is that the province has not seen a corresponding rapid increase in hospitalizations and intensive care admissions.
“Preliminary findings from Public Health Ontario suggests Omicron is the first dominant variant to demonstrate a decline in disease severity. The risk of hospitalization or death was 54 percent lower for Omicron cases as compared to Delta cases,” he said.
The province reported 16,000 new cases as of Friday, with 205 people in intensive care units and over 1,100 in other hospital units.
Along with changes to vaccine eligibility, the government also updated its testing and isolation guidelines.
Starting Dec. 31, publicly-funded PCR testing will be available to only vulnerable individuals, including those with significant medical issues, who are symptomatic, or who are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Most individuals with a positive test result from a rapid antigen test will no longer be required or encouraged to get a confirmatory PCR or rapid molecular tests, and no testing will be available for asymptomatic individuals.
“This updated eligibility will ensure that those at highest risk of severe outcomes and those caring for them have timely access to test results,” Moore said.
Moore noted that public health authorities will put more focus on the high-risk population. People who test positive for COVID-19 who live in high-risk settings such as long-term care homes and retirement homes will receive contact management calls from public health authorities, but others will be asked to inform their own close contacts if they are infected.
“With the number of cases that we are seeing, public health must shift its focus,” he said.
Moore added that Ontario’s online screening tools will be updated so that lower-risk individuals with COVID-19 symptoms will be instructed to isolate with their households and inform any additional contacts to self-monitor for symptoms.
“The key message will be simple. If you’re sick, stay at home,” he said.
With the province’s new public health restriction putting a pause on general visitors to long-term care homes in effect as of Thursday, Moore said that once the temporary ban is lifted, general visitors will also be required to show proof of vaccination or booster to enter long-term care facilities.
Ontario also tightened COVID-19 restrictions for larger indoor settings starting Dec. 31, limiting spectator capacity to 1,000 people or 50 percent of the usual seating capacity, whichever is less, in facilities used for sports, concerts, and theaters.