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.