After confirming a new COVID variant known as Omicron in Ontario, the chief medical officer of health is renewing calls for more robust testing for travellers returning from abroad.
Dr. Kieran Moore took questions from media on Nov. 29 after the province reported its first two cases of Omicron on Sunday. The cases are both individuals living in Ottawa who recently travelled to Nigeria and returned via Montreal.
Moore said there are still a lot of questions to be answered about Omicron, but he "assured Ontarians" the province is "ready to respond to this or any other new variant."
Anyone who travelled to or in South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe between Nov. 1 and Dec. 6 is now eligible to receive a free COVID test. Asymptomatic household contacts of those who travelled to the seven African countries are also eligible to be tested.
The federal government recently banned visitors from seven countries in southern Africa, including Namibia and Zimbabwe.
According to Moore, the federal government reported 375 Ontarians have returned recently from those seven countries, and Moore said Ontario health, and public health officials will follow up with the travellers.
"We are investigating more cases, and I would not be surprised if we find more ... because we have a robust monitoring system," said Moore.
He noted the Ontario COVID-19 genomic network sequences 100 per cent of viable positive COVID samples to test for known variants.
Moore said the delta variant is the current threat in Ontario with more than 99 per cent of cases still caused by that variant.
He said research into the current COVID-19 vaccines' effectiveness against the omicron variant is still being worked on, but "the basics" still form a solid defence against all variants of COVID-19.
"Keeping small gatherings small, masks on, hands clean and washed, and physical distancing ... all of those will work against Omicron and are effective against Delta, plus vaccination."
He said if the Omicron variant becomes more widespread, the province will have to re-look at its reopening strategy, but for now, he's pushing for more testing at airports as travellers return and visitors come to Ontario. He suggested take-home PCR tests could be made available for anyone arriving via the country's airports.
"We'll be working with federal partners on an enhanced testing strategy at airports," said Moore.
He also said the province will have an announcement soon regarding expanding eligibility for third doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
"You can anticipate a possible acceleration of our third dose strategy," said Moore.