To protect Ontario’s progress in the fight against COVID-19 and safeguard the province’s hospitals and intensive care units (ICUs) in the face of the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, the Ontario government is rapidly accelerating its booster dose rollout by expanding eligibility to all individuals aged 18 and over, as well as shortening the interval to three months following an individual’s second dose.
To provide an additional layer of protection against COVID-19 and variants during the holiday season, Ontario is also launching a holiday testing blitz to offer rapid antigen screening to individuals free of charge at pop-up sites across the province, as well as select LCBO stores across Ontario.
“As we combat the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, nothing matters more than getting these booster doses into people’s arms” Premier Doug Ford said. “I am issuing a call to arms. We need every member of Team Ontario to stand tall and do their part as we work to protect our hard-fought progress and keep Ontarians safe.”
Starting December 20, individuals aged 18 and over will be eligible to schedule their booster dose appointment through the Ontario’s booking portal, by calling the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre, through Indigenous-led vaccination clinics, participating pharmacies and primary care settings. Appointments will be booked three months (84 days) after a second dose as the province urgently expands booster eligibility to millions more individuals. Additionally, pharmacies and other channels may provide boosters for 18 and over at the three-month interval starting December 17 for walk-ins.
In addition, individuals aged 50 and over as well as all those currently eligible who have already booked their appointment at an interval of six months (168 days) can call the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre to re-book for an earlier date at the three-month interval and can change their appointment through Ontario’s booking portal starting on Monday.
“As we continue to learn more about the Omicron variant, we need all hands on deck to help limit transmission and protect our hospital capacity,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said. “A third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine offers additional protection against the Omicron variant, and I urge everyone to get their booster dose as soon as you can. If you haven’t received your first or second dose of the vaccine, now is the time.”
To further strengthen its response to Omicron, effective December 18 at 12:01 a.m. Ontario intends to introduce a 50 per cent capacity limit to the following indoor areas of venues with a usual capacity of 1,000 or more: facilities used for sports and recreational fitness activities; entertainment facilities such as concert venues, theatres and cinemas; racing venues; meeting and event spaces; studio audiences in commercial film and television production; museums, galleries, aquariums, zoos, science centres, landmarks, historic sites, botanical gardens and similar attractions; casinos, bingo halls and other gaming establishments; and fair, rural exhibitions, and festivals. This measure is being taken to reduce opportunities for close contact in high-risk indoor settings with large crowds and when face coverings/masks are not always worn.
As part of the government’s enhanced testing strategy, up to two million rapid tests will be provided free of charge at pop-up testing sites in high-traffic settings such as malls, retail settings, holiday markets, public libraries and transit hubs. Pop-up teams will be deployed at nearly 50 locations across the province, including some co-located with GO-VAXX mobile vaccine buses. Most sites will distribute free take-home rapid antigen test kits, subject to supply, and some will offer asymptomatic rapid antigen screening on-site. The government will also make take-home rapid tests available at select LCBO stores, starting with the busiest stores this week and with more stores being added in the coming days.
Ontarians can visit Ontario.ca/holidaytesting to find out if pop-up rapid antigen screening sites will be available in their area. Locations and operating hours will be updated weekly, and no appointment will be required.
The latest available data suggests that the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the Delta variant and will become the dominant variant by the end of the month.
Early evidence suggests that a third dose or booster can further increase protection against severe illness and hospitalization. While cases were always expected to rise, the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant could put additional strain on Ontario’s hospital capacity, making it critical that all Ontarians receive their booster dose as soon as possible.
Ontario’s cautious approach and high vaccination rates have contributed to keep hospital and intensive care unit capacity stable. As of December 15, there were 153 COVID-19 related critical illness patients in ICU. The seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 related critical illness patients in ICU is 154. Approximately 600 ICU beds are available, with nearly 500 additional ICU beds available for surge capacity if required.
To quickly scale up capacity to administer up to previous peak vaccination capacity, the province has asked public health units, hospitals, pharmacists, primary care providers and other health care providers to ramp up additional vaccinations sites and prioritize the administration of first, second and booster doses across the province.
On December 14, 127,000 vaccines were administered in Ontario, well above recent provincial capacity, and the province is continuing to ramp up to administer 200,000 to 300,000 doses per day by next week based on demand. The province is also partnering with additional health care providers and first responders to support Ontario’s vaccination efforts and administer more shots in arms.
Ontario is engaging with large corporations who have the capabilities to implement workplace and community clinics to support the booster dose rollout for employees, their families and the local community. Bruce Power, in partnership with Grey Bruce Health Unit, will be the first corporate-led vaccine clinic, starting the week of December 20. In addition, the successful mobile vaccine clinic strategy will be expanded to meet the evolving challenges of COVID-19 and its variants.
More information on the corporate and mobile clinics will be available in the coming weeks. The province will also be expanding the Stop the Spread Business Information Line to allow businesses to request vaccine supply to administer on-site for employees. Businesses will need to meet certain criteria to ensure proper storage and safe administration of the vaccines, including availability of health human resources.
“As we continue to learn more about the Omicron variant we need to do more to strengthen our defence against the virus, and vaccines are the most effective way we can do that,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health. “If you are eligible for a booster or have not yet had your first or second dose, please come forward to get vaccinated. It will provide you, your loved ones and your community with vital layer of protection throughout the winter season.”
Ontario continues to work with the federal government to secure sufficient supply to maintain widespread rapid testing across the province in the coming weeks and months. Ontario is also directly procuring additional rapid tests where possible to fulfill necessary supply needs over the next several weeks.
Effective January 4, 2022, the use of the enhanced COVID-19 vaccine certificate with QR code and the Verify Ontario app will be required where proof of vaccination is required. Download by visiting https://covid-19.ontario.ca/get-proof/, or call the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre at 1-833-943-3900 to have your vaccine certificate mailed.