January 29, 2021, Premier Doug Ford and Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Christine Elliott, unveiled a six-point plan to stop the spread of new COVID-19 variants in Ontario. The plan includes mandatory on-arrival testing of international travellers, as well as enhanced screening and sequencing to identify new variants.
The release of this plan follows yesterday’s COVID-19 modelling update, which suggested that the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant (also known as the UK variant) could become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the province by March.
Premier Ford and Minister Elliott were joined by Solicitor General, Sylvia Jones, and Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams. Following today’s announcement, Premier Ford responded to questions from media.
Earlier today, the government provided an update on its ongoing inspection blitz of big box stores and other essential retail businesses. So far this month, provincial offences officers have visited 1,147 businesses, and have issued 112 tickets to businesses and individuals for non-compliance. Officers will visit an additional 400 stores this weekend in Toronto, Hamilton, and Kitchener-Waterloo.
Six-Point Plan to Stop the Spread of COVID-19 Variants
This afternoon, Premier Ford and Minister Elliott announced a six-point plan to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants in Ontario. The release of this plan acknowledges that, while the second wave curve appears to be trending downward, Ontarians must remain vigilant to prevent further spread of more transmissible new variants.
Since the detection of Ontario’s first case of the B.1.1.7 variant on December 26, 51 additional cases of the variant have been confirmed. As this variant is believed to be up to 56% more transmissible, it presents a significant threat to controlling the pandemic.
Other variants of concern include 501Y.V2 (first identified in South Africa) and P.1 (first detected in travelers from Brazil).
Pillars of the Six-Point Plan
Ontario’s six-point plan to stop the spread of new variants includes the following pillars:
- Mandatory on-arrival testing of international travelers. This requirement will come into effect at noon on Monday, February 1, at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Those who refuse to be tested will receive a $750 ticket. The government is also exploring additional testing measures which can be implemented at land border crossings in the coming weeks.
- Enhanced screening and sequencing in order to screen all positive COVID-19 tests for known variants within two to three days. This measure will take effect beginning Wednesday, February 3. By February 17, Public Health Ontario will also undertake genomic sequencing of up to 10% of all positive tests, in order to identify new and emerging variants.
- Maintain public health measures. Given the evidence that the variants of concern are more transmissible, the lifting of public health measures will not be considered until more information on variant spread is known and overall trends in public health indicators improve.
- Strengthen case and contact management. The provincial workforce will continue supporting public health units to reach cases and contacts as soon as possible. In addition, 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.
- Accelerate the vaccination of residents in long-term care, high-risk retirement, and First Nations elder care homes. In order to enhance protections for vulnerable populations, the province will expanding rapid testing in high priority settings, including long-term care homes, retirement homes, essential workplaces, schools, and congregate living settings.
- Establish a genomics databank and real-time analytics. This measure will entail working with Ontario-based DNAstack, to improve planning related to the pandemic response.
Questions from Media
Lifting of Current Restrictions
When asked to comment on whether today’s announcement was an indication that the provincial state of emergency would remain in place beyond its current expiry date of February 9, Premier Ford said that the government was “a few days off” from making a decision on this. He added that Ontarians should not let their guard down, despite the recent dip in daily case numbers.
Provincial Immunization Campaign
In response to questions about how news of delayed and reduced vaccine shipments to Canada would affect Ontario’s rollout of its COVID-19 immunization campaign, Premier Ford called the news “concerning.” He also urged Health Canada to follow other countries in approving additional vaccines, including AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, as soon as possible.