Faced with soaring omicron variant COVID-19 case numbers, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a series of temporary public health restrictions on Monday, January 3. There are new restrictions on social gatherings, indoor restaurant dining is closed, and students are going to be studying at home again for a couple of weeks. 

Locally, the Eastern Ontario Heath Unit (EOHU) is advising the public that the new measures take effect on January 5 at 12:01 a.m. in the EOHU region and across Ontario. The entire province is temporarily returning to a modified Step 2 in the province’s Roadmap to Reopen. All regions of the province will remain in Step 2 for at least 21 days (until January 26, 2022), subject to trends in public health and health system indicators. 

According to the Ontario government, the rapid rise of Omicron cases may soon number in the hundreds of thousands and could result in the province’s hospital capacity becoming overwhelmed if further action isn’t taken to curb transmission.  

“As with other areas of the province, the EOHU region has seen a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases in the last few weeks,” said EOHU Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis.  

There were 2,244 active cases of COVID-19 on Monday, January 3 among residents of the EOHU’s territory. Nine individuals were in hospital, and two people were in intensive care as a result of COVID-19.  

As of January 3, the greatest number of active COVID-19 cases under EOHU jurisdiction were in Cornwall where there were 725 cases. South Stormont had 195 active cases, and Clarence-Rockland had 194 active cases. 

In the eastern part of Prescott and Russell counties, the three municipalities with the most active cases of COVID-19 as of January 3 were Hawkesbury with 158 active cases, 99 cases in Champlain Township, and 89 cases in Alfred and Plantagenet. 

Students return to remote learning from January 5 to 17 

Among the measures that will be in effect starting January 5 is a temporary return to online learning for students, until at least January 17. During this period of remote learning, free emergency childcare will be provided for school-aged children of healthcare and other eligible frontline workers. 

School buildings will be permitted to open for childcare operations, including emergency childcare, to provide in-person instruction for students with special education needs who cannot be accommodated remotely and for staff who are unable to deliver quality instruction from home. 

Gathering limits 

Social gatherings will be limited to five people indoors and 10 people outdoors. Organized public events will be limited to five people indoors. 

Work from home 

Businesses and organizations are required to ensure employees work remotely unless the nature of their work requires them to be on-site. 

Closure of indoor dining 

Indoor dining at restaurants, bars and other food or drink establishments will not be permitted. 

Outdoor dining with restrictions, takeout, drive through and delivery is permitted. 

Reduced capacity at certain businesses, events, and places of worship 

Capacity restrictions of 50 per cent will be in place for retail settings (including shopping malls), certain personal care services (with additional restrictions) and libraries. In addition, indoor weddings, funerals, and religious services, rites and ceremonies will be limited to 50 per cent capacity of the room. Outdoor services will be limited to the number of people that can maintain two metres of physical distance. 

Business and service closures 

The following services and settings will be temporarily closed: 

  • Indoor meeting and event spaces with limited exceptions (outdoor spaces may remain open with restrictions) 
  • Indoor concert venues, theatres, cinemas; rehearsals and recorded performances permitted with restrictions 
  • Indoor sport and recreational fitness facilities including gyms 
  • Museums, galleries, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens and similar attractions, amusement parks and waterparks, tour and guide services and fairs, rural exhibitions, and festivals (outdoor establishments permitted to open with restrictions and with spectator occupancy, where applicable, limited to 50 per cent capacity) 
  • Indoor horse racing tracks, car racing tracks and other similar venues 

The restrictions announced on January 3 followed a series of measures announced on December 31 involving changes to testing, isolation periods, and booster vaccinations for residents of long-term care facilities. 

Changes to Testing Guidelines 

  • Ontario is shifting its strategy and making publicly funded PCR testing only available to high-risk individuals who are symptomatic and/or at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Individuals with a positive result from a rapid antigen test will no longer have to get a PCR or rapid molecular test to confirm their COVID status. Health units will no longer perform contact tracing and case management for a positive case in a low risk setting. 

Changes to Isolation Period 

  • Fully vaccinated individuals who have COVID-19, as well as children under 12, must isolate for 5 days from the onset of symptoms. Their household members must also isolate for 5 days. Contacts from outside the affected household must self-monitor for symptoms for 10 days. 
  • Individuals who are unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, or immunocompromised must isolate for 10 days. 
  • Staff who work in high-risk health care settings can return to work after 10 days from their date of diagnosis, or after seven days with a negative PCR or rapid antigen test result.  

Fourth Doses for Long-Term Care Residents 

  • Fourth doses of mRNA vaccines (Pfizer or Moderna) are available to all residents of long-term care homes, retirement homes, and other congregate care settings. The province is also mandating third doses for all staff, students, volunteers, caregivers and support workers in congregate care settings. Those currently eligible for a booster must receive their third dose by January 28, 2022. When general visitors will be allowed in these settings again, they too will have to provide proof of a booster dose. 

On December 31, Roumeliotis said 60 per cent of people aged 70 and older across the EOHU’s territory have received a third dose. 

Booster booking 

All Ontario residents aged 18 and older are eligible to receive a third, COVID-19 vaccine booster. To book your appointment through your local public health unit, call 1-833-943-3900 or go to https://covid19.ontariohealth.ca/  

Booster vaccinations are also being offered by local doctor’s offices and at pharmacies in Alexandria, Alfred, Bourget, Casselman, Embrun, Hawkesbury (Asselin Independent, Pharmasave, Shoppers Drug Mart, Guardian), Limoges, Plantagenet, Russell, St-Isidore, and Vankleek Hill. Contact each pharmacy to make an appointment.