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Ontario Takes Immediate Action to Stop the Spread of COVID-19 Variants

TORONTO — The Ontario government is taking immediate and decisive action to stop the spread of new COVID-19 variants throughout the province. It is implementing a six-point plan which includes mandatory on-arrival testing of international travellers, enhanced screening and sequencing to identify the new variants, maintaining public health measures to keep people safe, strengthening case and contact management to track the spread of new cases, enhanced protections for vulnerable populations, and leveraging the latest data to inform public health decisions.

Details of the plan were provided today by Premier Doug Ford, Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, and Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health.

“We welcome the new measures announced by the federal government today, but we need a stop gap to prevent new cases, including variant cases, from arriving in Ontario until those measures are fully in place,” said Premier Ford. “That’s why our government is taking immediate and decisive action, which includes mandatory testing of incoming international travellers and providing additional layers of protection for the people of Ontario, especially our seniors. Through our six-point plan, we intend to stop this virus in its tracks.”

Ontario’s first COVID-19 UK variant case was confirmed last month and was due to international travel. Since that time, 51 cases of the variant have been confirmed in the province.  Evidence shows that the UK variant could be up to 56 per cent more transmissible. Recent evidence shows Ontarians’ efforts to contain COVID-19 are working, with provincial trends in most key public health indicators trending down. However, recent modelling suggests that the UK variant and other new variants remain a significant threat to controlling the pandemic and could become the dominant strain of the virus in the province by March 2021, posing an increased threat to public health and hospital capacity.

“People across the province are staying home and helping to limit the spread of this deadly virus, and their actions are starting to make a difference,” said Minister Elliott. “However, the UK variant is now making its way into our communities and putting Ontario’s pandemic response at risk. In addition to maintaining the public health measures we know work and keep us safe, our government is taking decisive action to control the spread, protect our health care system, and save lives.”

Ontario’s six-point variant action plan enhances the existing coordinated and ongoing efforts of the province to detect, track, trace, and contain the spread of COVID-19. The plan includes:

Mandatory Testing of Travelers:To address the risks associated with variants of concern to the health of Ontarians, the Chief Medical Officer of Health is issuing a Section 22 order under Section 77.1 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act, mandating on-arrival testing for international travellers at Toronto Pearson International Airport effective at 12:01 p.m. on February 1, 2021 and  exploring additional testing measures at Pearson International Airport and land border crossings in the coming weeks.

Enhanced Screening and Sequencing: Led by Public Health Ontario, the provincial diagnostic lab network is ramping up capacity to screen all positive COVID-19 tests in Ontario for known variants within two to three days of initial processing. This new measure will take effect as of February 3, 2021. Public Health Ontario (PHO) will also undertake and coordinate genomic sequencing efforts to identify new and emerging variants by sequencing up to 10 per cent of all positive tests by February 17, 2021.

Maintain Public Health Measures: Given the emerging evidence that the variants of concern are more transmissible and may cause more severe disease in some individuals, lifting of public health and workplace safety measures will not be considered at this time until more information on variant spread is known and overall trends in public health indicators improve. The declared provincial emergency and stay-at-home order were recently extended until February 9, 2021.  

Strengthen Case and Contact Management: The provincial workforce will continue supporting public health units to ensure cases and contacts are reached as soon as possible and monitored through their quarantine period. All asymptomatic contacts will be asked to repeat testing on or after day 10 of their quarantine, and the entire household of all contacts and symptomatic individuals will be asked to stay home until the contact has a negative test.

Enhancing Protections for Vulnerable Populations: Dependent on supply from the federal government, the province will continue with the accelerated vaccination of residents in long-term care, high-risk retirement and First Nations elder care homes. The province is also introducing a provincial antigen screening program for the expansion of rapid testing in high priority settings, such as long-term care homes, retirement homes, essential workplaces, schools and congregate living settings.

Leveraging Data: The province will work with a made-in-Ontario technology company DNAstack to immediately establish a genomics databank and real-time analytics dashboard to empower the province’s public health officials and improve the government’s planning related to pandemic response. This will enhance the province’s capacity to identify known and emerging variants of COVID-19.

“Urgent action is required to protect Ontarians from the new COVID-19 variants. That is why our government is implementing a six-point plan which includes mandatory on-arrival testing of international travellers starting next week,” said Solicitor General Sylvia Jones. “We continue to urgently call on the federal government to impose a temporary travel ban on flights coming from countries where new COVID-19 variants are being detected.” 

Ontario continues to monitor the developing situation with the Public Health Agency of Canada and other jurisdictions to ensure coordinated, effective and shared efforts to protect and safeguard the public. It remains critically important that all Ontarians continue following the stay-at-home order and public health advice and measures to protect our communities and most vulnerable populations, and to stop the spread of COVID-19.

 

BACKGROUNDER

TORONTO — The Ontario government has unveiled a six-point plan to prevent and stop the spread of new COVID-19 variants. The plan will help to minimize case importation resulting from travel, require screening of all positive case samples to identify variants, and will enhance the public health response to reduce the spread of the virus in communities across the province.

In recent weeks, three new variants of the COVID-19 virus have been identified as posing a significant threat to public health due to high rates of transmission, severity of illness and increased risk of reinfection. The variants are:

  • B.1.1.7 (501Y.V1) – variant first identified in the United Kingdom in late November 2020.
  • 501Y.V2 – variant first identified in South Africa at the end of December 2020.
  • P.1 – variant first detected in travelers from Brazil who arrived in Japan in January 2021.

The UK variant has been identified in multiple health units across the province, with cases believed to be linked to both travel-related and community transmission. While information about the UK variant is still emerging, evidence has indicated that it is more easily spread between people, with a 56 per cent higher transmission rate, and carries a potentially higher risk of severe illness or death. Recent modelling suggests that by March 2021, the UK variant could become the dominant strain of the virus in Ontario.

The spread of any new COVID-19 variants is a significant threat to the province’s response to COVID-19. The province’s six-point variant action plan will enhance coordinated efforts to prevent the transmission of the new COVID-19 variants in our communities, providing increased protection for the health and well-being of Ontarians. The plan includes:

  1. Mandatory Testing of Travellers

To address the risk associated with the variants of concern to the health of Ontarians, the Chief Medical Officer of Health will issue a Section 22 order under Section 77.1 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act, mandating on-arrival testing for international travellers at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Tougher border controls that minimize travel across international borders will help to reduce the risk of a new COVID-19 variant being transmitted from someone entering the country. The province is exploring development of additional testing measures at Pearson International Airport and land border crossings in the coming weeks.

  1. Enhanced Screening and Sequencing

Led by Public Health Ontario, the provincial diagnostic lab network is ramping up capacity to screen all positive COVID-19 tests in Ontario for known variants within two to three days of initial processing by the week of February 1, 2021 and will centrally coordinate genomic sequencing for a minimum of 10 per cent of all positive samples to quickly identify and manage emerging variants by the week of February 15, 2021.

Screening identifies whether a positive COVID-19 case is one of the three known variants. Screening is a faster process that provides confirmation that a positive COVID-19 test is one of the three known variants of concern so local and provincial health officials can take rapid action to isolate and conduct case and contact management. Sequencing can identify which of the three known variants is present and can also identify currently unknown variants if they arise locally or are imported from elsewhere. Ontario is committed to acting quickly to contain the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, and will coordinate and enable existing research lab expertise and capacity to further contribute to genomic capacity. Both screening and sequencing are critical to rapidly detect variants of COVID-19 and play an integral role in public health management.

  1. Maintain Public Health Measures

Evidence has shown that the new variants of COVID-19 are more transmissible and may cause more severe illness or increased risk of death in some individuals. With the UK variant spreading in Ontario and other variants posing a significant risk, the province is taking every precaution to keep everyone safe. This means that public health and workplace safety measures, as well as the Stay-at-Home Order, will stay in place until more information on the variant spread is known and overall trends in public health indicators improve. On January 25, 2021, the government extended the declared provincial emergency until February 9, 2021, unless extended further. The declaration of emergency was made on January 12, 2021 under section 7.0.1 of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act (EMCPA),  All orders under the EMCPA, including O. Reg 11/21 (Stay-at-Home Order)O. Reg 8/21 (Enforcement of COVID-19 Measures) and O. Reg 13/21 (Residential Evictions) were also extended. Orders under the Reopening Ontario (A Flexible Response to COVID-19) Act, 2020 (ROA) continue to be in force. To reinforce the role that key public health measures play in keeping our communities safe, the province is launching a high-profile public education campaign to remind Ontarians of the importance of adhering to public health advice and measures, including:

  • staying home when ill even with mild symptoms;
  • not gathering indoors with anyone outside of your household (the people you live with);
  • maintaining two metres of physical distance with anyone outside of your household;
  • regular and thorough handwashing;
  • cover your cough (sneeze and cough into your sleeve);
  • avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth;
  • wearing a face covering when physical distancing cannot be maintained or where required;
  • disinfect frequently touched surfaces regularly;
  • following workplace health and safety measures including Infection Prevention and Control (IPAC), and personal protective equipment (PPE) use and access; and
  • Get tested if you have symptoms, of if you’ve been advised of exposure by your local public health unit or through the COVID Alert mobile app.

Additionally, the province is stepping up inspections to ensure that employers have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for regular and potential outbreak-related use, and that they have the proper protections in place to keep staff, customers and the general public safe.

  1. Strengthen Case and Contact Management

To reduce the risk of community spread, it is crucial that Ontario isolate cases of COVID-19 as quickly as possible through strengthened case and contact management. The provincial workforce will be supporting public health units to ensure they can reach out to and monitor cases and contacts as quickly as possible, and are monitored through their quarantine period. All asymptomatic contacts will be asked to repeat testing on or after day 10 of their quarantine, and the entire household of all contacts and symptomatic individuals will be asked to stay home until the contact has a negative test. Additionally, the threshold for considering contacts who have had high-risk exposure will be lowered to include situations where either the individual who tested positive or their contacts were not masked for any duration of time, and were less than two metres from one another.

  1. Enhancing Protections for Vulnerable Populations

To help protect Ontario’s most vulnerable, the province is accelerating the vaccination of long-term care, high-risk retirement, and First Nations elder care home residents, with plans to reach all homes across the province by February 5, 2021, pending supply from the federal government. The province is also finalizing plans to vaccinate recipients of chronic home health care when vaccine supply permits.

Ontario is also committed to providing Ontarians with more access to innovative testing options to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Based on successes seen from the use of rapid tests in select settings across Ontario to date, the province is expanding their use for more people in more priority settings to quickly identify cases of COVID-19 and support the safe re-opening of schools. As part of the Provincial Antigen Screening Program, high-priority settings will include:

  • Long-term care homes
  • Retirement homes
  • Schools
  • Congregate living
  • High-priority communities
  • Land borders
  • Essential industry, such as manufacturing and construction

The government has also introduced regulatory amendments to enable more workplaces to implement rapid testing, that will exempt workplaces participating in the Provincial Antigen Screening Program from the Laboratory and Specimen Collection Centre Licensing Act (LSCCLA). This will allow a broader range of health professionals to perform rapid antigen screening beyond the seven regulated health professionals previously exempted, and outside of licensed labs.

In the highest risk congregate living settings, the province will require periodic self-audits for infection prevention and control measures to further enhance public safety, and reinforce Public Health Ontario’s infection prevention and control communication fundamentals through an online learning program.

  1. Leveraging Data

Ontario will use integrated data and deep analytics to drive decision-making and inform planning related to pandemic response, leveraging DNAstack’s COVID Cloud platform. DNAstack is a Toronto-based software company that developed COVID Cloud, a cloud-based genomic database of SARS-CoV-2 genomes and bioinformatics tool. This is an opportunity for Ontario to establish a provincial databank for safely and securely storing genomic sequencing information, that can strengthen the impact of genomics and can support real-time analysis and decision-making of Public Health Ontario. Ontario is also exploring opportunities with the ONCoV Genomics Coalition to take advantage of capacity and expertise genomic sequencing in Ontario’s research and scientific community. Leveraging analytics will enhance Ontario’s capacity to identify known and emerging variants of COVID-19 and will strengthen the province’s genomic data by providing an increasingly clearer picture of the emergence and patterns of COVID-19 variants.



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