Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced COVID-19 testing for all incoming international travellers at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Friday.
The province will move ahead with the testing program despite an announcement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday morning that the federal government intends to implement its own requirement for mandatory tests in the coming weeks.
Trudeau said the mandatory tests will be part of a suite of new measures aimed at limiting travel-related transmission of the virus and its variants in Canada.
At a news conference Friday, Ford said he welcomed the new measures announced by the federal government, but noticed the rules won’t be implemented until a few weeks from now. Effective Monday at 12:01 p.m., the province is instituting a stop-gap until the federal measures take place, he said.
The plan includes:
- On-arrival testing with those who refuse being ticketed $750.
- Increasing case and contact management with asymptomatic contacts asked to repeat testing on or after Day 10 of their quarantine. Entire households of all contacts and symptomatic individuals will be asked to stay home until the contact has a negative test.
- Increasing capacity to screen for variants within two or three days of initial processing.
- Maintaining existing public health measures “until more information on variant spread is known and overall trends in public health indicators improve.”
- Antigen testing for high-priority settings such as long-term care and retirement homes, essential workplaces and schools.
Asked when students might be able to return to school in areas where in-person learning remains suspended, Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said the key to that will be getting rapid-tests into schools, but didn’t say when that might happen.
The news comes as Ontario deals with an increasing number of COVID-19 cases caused by variants of the novel coronavirus. Revised forecasts released by public health officials on Thursday suggest that by March, the B117 variant first identified in the United Kingdom could be the dominant strain in Ontario.
As of yesterday, there had been 51 cases of B117 confirmed in the province.
In recent weeks, Ford has repeatedly called for mandatory testing at Pearson along with more stringent federal travel restrictions aimed at countries where new variants are detected.
“We have to test every person that comes into Pearson and any other crossing. It’s absolutely critical. We need to put barriers up every which way we can,” Ford told reporters on Monday.
“I can’t emphasize enough: close down our borders and make sure anyone that’s coming in gets tested.”
Despite Ford’s focus on international travel, provincial data cited by the government shows that it accounted for just 1.8 per cent of all traceable COVID-19 cases in Ontario. That figure falls to about 1 per cent for all traceable cases since Sept. 1, 2020, during the second wave of the illness.
International travel is the only category of likely transmission source that has not grown exponentially over the course of the pandemic.
The province also plans to expand the availability of rapid COVID-19 tests in priority settings, like long-term care and high-risk retirement homes, essential workplaces and schools, the source said.
CBC News reported earlier this week that Ontario had deployed less than one quarter of the 4.6 million rapid tests distributed by the Public Health Agency of Canada to the province.
The Ministry of Health said at the time that more than 159,000 rapid PCR tests have gone to rural and remote communities, including First Nations, the ministry said, and about 850,000 rapid antigen tests have been distributed to long-term care homes and workplaces.
The Health Ministry also said it has distributed rapid tests to more than 150 workplaces — including Air Canada, Magna and Ontario Power Generation.
1,837 new COVID-19 cases
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 1,837 cases of COVID-19 on Friday and the deaths of 58 more people with the illness.
The new cases include 595 in Toronto, 295 in Peel Region and 170 in York Region.
Other public health units that saw double-digit increases were:
- Waterloo Region: 91
- Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 83
- Niagara Region: 64
- Durham Region: 59
- Simcoe Muskoka: 58
- Halton Region: 54
- Hamilton: 53
- Ottawa: 53
- London: 48
- Windsor-Essex: 45
- Southwestern: 24
- Thunder Bay: 24
- Chatham-Kent: 15
- Porcupine: 15
- Sudbury: 13
- Haldimand-Norfolk: 11
(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, because local units report figures at different times.)
The seven-day average of new cases fell to 2,011, the lowest it has been since Dec. 16, marking 19 consecutive days of decreases.
There are currently 20,357 confirmed, active infections provincewide, down from a peak of 30,632 on Jan. 11. That figure has been trending downward as resolved cases consistently outpace new ones.
Ontario’s labs processed 69,040 test samples for the virus and reported a test positivity rate of 3.3 per cent for a second straight day.
According to the Ministry of Health, the overall number of people with COVID-19 that were in hospitals dropped considerably, down 47 to 1,291. Patients that were being treated in intensive care increased slightly, up two to 360, but the number that required ventilators fell by five to 271.
The additional deaths pushed Ontario’s official COVID-19-linked death toll to 6,072. Thirty-two of the deaths reported today were residents of long-term care.
There are ongoing outbreaks of COVID-19 in 229 of Ontario’s 626 long-term care facilities, according to the ministry.
Moreover, the province said that 10,215 doses of vaccines were administered yesterday. A total of 327,455 single doses have been given out so far, while 61,679 people have been fully immunized with two shots.
News of Moderna delays ‘disappointing’
Meanwhile, drug-manufacturer Moderna announced Friday it would be delaying some deliveries to Canada in February, expecting to ship anywhere from 20 to 25 per cent less product next month.
In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Health Christine Elliott called the news “disappointing,” but couldn’t say what impact it will have on the province’s vaccination plans, or whether it will still meet its deadline for immunizing people in all vulnerable settings by Feb. 15.
“The latest of several updates over the past few weeks is that Ontario’s allocation vaccines for February is substantially less than what was first communicated,” Alexandra Hilkene said.
“This is disappointing news from the federal government and we are once again determining the impact further reductions will have on Ontario’s vaccination rollout.”
Simcoe-Muskoka waiting for variant lab results
Meanwhile, on Friday, Dr. Colin Lee, the Simcoe-Muskoka Health Unit’s associate medical officer, said his region was waiting for upwards of 100 samples of the virus to be screened for variants by Public Health Ontario.
Mid-week, the health unit said 99 cases of COVID-19 in the region “have had a positive first screening test for a variant of concern” but still needed genome sequencing for confirmation.
The area has definitively confirmed the presence of six cases of the B117 variant at Roberta Place long-term care home, where a devastating outbreak has killed 51 residents.
A seventh case of the variant was also found in “an individual who had close contact with a person who is also part of the COVID-19 outbreak at Bradford Valley Care Community.”
Among the cases undergoing genome sequencing, two also come from people who have “no known link” to the previously confirmed cases.
They are “not related to the first, second or third generation of infections from the Roberta Place cluster” and not travel-related “as far as we can see,” Lee said Friday.