TORONTO — Ontario is preparing to change its approach to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing as the Omicron variant strains resources, with the province's top doctor saying residents may soon have to take on more responsibility when it comes to notifying others of exposure.
Dr. Kieran Moore said Tuesday that Ontario is on track to have more COVID-19 cases than at any point in the pandemic. The exponential growth means people may face long waits for tests and should be prepared to tell their own personal contacts and workplaces about a positive test result, he said.
"We will continue to evolve our case and contact management and testing strategy over the coming days and weeks as we respond to Omicron," Moore said. "Our resources must be prioritized to ensure our most vulnerable are protected, and that health care and essential settings remain open and functioning effectively."
Some areas have struggled to keep up with managing the rising number of cases in recent days – 3,453 new infections were reported Tuesday.
Ottawa Public Health this week asked residents who have symptoms but can't access a timely test to assume they are infected and self-isolate. Testing resources were also reportedly strained in Kingston, Ont., last week, while other health units have said they are bracing for the same problems.
Moore said those situations aren't playing out across the province yet but a consistent approach is necessary, with guidance to come within the next few days.
"We are partnering with our local public health agencies, are learning from their experience, and are anticipating a rise in cases where we're going to have to provide more broad advice to the public, both on the testing strategy (and) the isolation strategy," he said.
Moore said the province will likely need to prioritize gold-standard PCR tests for managing outbreaks and may end up using rapid antigen tests to diagnose some people – although rapid tests may also need to be reserved to keep essential workers on the job if many are exposed.
The province wants to have enough rapid tests available so essential workers exposed to the virus can take daily tests in order to go back to work instead of isolating for 10 days as the current policy requires.
Most people in hospital due to COVID-19 – including 165 intensive care patients as of Tuesday – were hospitalized with the Delta variant, but Moore said the province anticipates Omicron will likely hospitalize more people eventually.
Some hospitals said they were suspending non-essential services to brace for the impact of rising infections. In Toronto, the Unity Health hospital network said it had made the "difficult decision" to pause non-essential ambulatory care and surgical procedures, with the exception of urgent cases.
Moore said early figures show that 15 out of 4,600 Ontarians with laboratory confirmed Omicron cases have been hospitalized. He noted that most of the infected people are in their 20s, an age group not typically hit with the worst of COVID-19 outcomes.
Moore said he was still taking in evidence on Omicron's virulence before making a conclusion on the severity of illness it causes, though a "much better understanding" may come over the next week.
However, he said early evidence from other countries about Omicron's impact on children has been promising, with no significant impact on child hospitalizations.
Pointing to that evidence, along with an immunization rate of 38 per cent for children aged five to 11, Moore said he doesn't currently see a reason to delay the return to school classrooms after the December holidays, though he warned that the situation could change.
In response to the variant threat, the province is speeding up its booster dose plan for all adults – it opened eligibility to all adults three months from their second dose on Monday. Capacity restrictions have also been brought in for some businesses, entertainment venues and social gatherings.
Premier Doug Ford was among the Ontarians who received a third shot on Tuesday. On social media, he shared a photo from the Toronto pharmacy where he received a third shot.
"It is critical that every Ontarian is protected from Omicron," he wrote on Twitter. "If you are eligible for your vaccine and booster, please sign up today."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press