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Ottawa could see new pandemic restrictions amid sobering Omicron projections


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Ottawa will likely see new capacity restrictions on restaurants, bars and indoor gatherings in the coming days as the Omicron variant continues to drive up COVID-19 case counts.

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Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said Thursday she was prepared to order new restrictions to help blunt the rapid spread of Omicron in the community — unless the province acts first. That is a possibility, she suggested.

“This is a province-wide challenge. There is a possibility we will see more action there.” Talks with the province, she said, are ongoing.

Her comments came amid sobering projections and calls for stronger public health measures from the province’s science advisory table.

“This will likely be the hardest wave of the pandemic,” said Adalsteinn Brown, who heads the Ontario Science Advisory Table.

He released new models from the advisory body showing that daily case counts in Ontario could top a record-breaking 10,000 in the coming days and intensive care units could become “unsustainable” by early January without an immediate “circuit breaker” to slow the highly contagious variant. That would require people to reduce their contacts by 50 per cent, he said.

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Vaccinations are essential, Brown said, but they will not be enough on their own to make a significant difference in the coming days and weeks.

“This is a very, very challenging situation. There is an incredible urgency because of the speed at which (Omicron) spreads.”

Some public health officials have expressed frustration that the province isn’t doing more to reduce spread as the situation rapidly becomes more serious.

On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford announced an urgent vaccination blitz to get third doses into millions of Ontario residents over the next two weeks in response to Omicron. Third doses are significantly more effective against the variant, which is able to evade immunity from vaccines and previous infections. Ford also reduced capacity at large venues such as hockey arenas by 50 per cent beginning Saturday.

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But the province, which has recently left it to local health units to introduce new pandemic restrictions, did not lower capacity limits in restaurants, bars and at indoor gatherings, something requested by public health officials from across the province as part of the Omicron response.

On Thursday, Etches said she was in discussions with the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, and was seeking input from business organizations in advance of ordering new restrictions in Ottawa, if necessary.

“This is really tough,” she said. “This is not what we wanted for businesses this time of year.”

The City of Ottawa is also taking action to build vaccination capacity, even redirecting public health workers from other crucial programs to lend a hand.

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As of next Monday, when the province opens booster doses to anyone over 18 three months after their last shot, 750,000 Ontario residents will be eligible for third doses. This week, as people over 50 became eligible, it was difficult for many to get appointments. Etches said the city, with the help of primary caregivers, paramedics, hospitals, pharmacists and more, was working to speed that up. The challenge is not vaccines, which are available — it is finding enough immunizers.

Meanwhile, Ottawa Public Health is nearing capacity for its testing abilities as cases continue to rise. On Wednesday, 6,344 COVID-19 lab tests were performed in Ottawa. Capacity is 8,421.

“Omicron is changing the game,” Etches said, adding that OPH was looking at other options, including take-home tests, to deal with growing capacity. Moore said this week that using rapid tests might be on the table if cases continued to grow and there was not enough capacity to give everyone a lab-based PCR test.

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Etches acknowledged that “vaccination is not enough” to make a significant difference quickly in Ontario.

Brown, of the science table, said other steps needed to be taken to blunt the spread of Omicron until enough people had third, first or second doses to make a difference.

The modelling from the science table painted a bleak picture of the possible situation in Ontario.

With no additional measures to reduce transmission, cases in the province will top 10,000 as early as next week, according to the advisory group’s modelling. A “circuit breaker” that reduces social contacts by at least 50 per cent could bring those daily case counts below the historic high of 5,000 a day in the province, but that is a tall order during the holiday season.

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Brown countered assertions by some that the Omicron variant is so mild that cases will have minimal impact.

He cited recent data from Denmark that suggests Omicron is as virulent as Delta, based on hospitalizations there. Even if it is significantly less virulent than Delta, hospitals will face increasingly strong pressure without further public health measures simply because it is so contagious.

Brown said the province needed to administer between 250,000 and 350,000 vaccinations a day and see a substantial reduction in social contacts.

Even those measures would only blunt, not significantly limit, the impact of surging Omicron cases.

The science table projected that, even if Omicron proves to be 25 per cent less severe than the Delta variant, there would be 500 patients in ICU in Ontario by early January with no additional measures. With a circuit breaker, that would be reduced to around 300 patients.

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Ottawa hospitals have surge plans for an increase in Omicron-related hospitalizations, Etches said, but that is challenging because most are already over 100 per cent capacity and trying to catch up on delayed surgeries and procedures.

Brown encouraged people to get boosters, wear well-fitted high quality masks, increase ventilation, physically distance and avoid large gatherings.

Etches also encouraged smaller gatherings and limiting contacts.

“The smaller, the better,” she said of holiday gatherings.

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