TORONTO — Some surgeries paused due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in Ontario will start resuming next week, when businesses shuttered by public health measures can reopen their doors, as the province's top doctor sends a message about learning to live with the virus.
Non-urgent surgeries were put on hold in early January to preserve hospital capacity, affecting an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 procedures a week. But with public health indicators now suggesting the Omicron wave is cresting, the procedures will be allowed to resume in stages.
The first phase will include pediatrics, diagnostic services, and cancer screenings.
It takes effect Monday, the same day social gathering limits will increase and businesses such as restaurants, gyms and cinemas can reopen with capacity limits.
But the loosened restrictions and resuming surgeries also come with limited abilities to track and trace the spread of COVID-19, with access to PCR testing severely curtailed, the government not monitoring or reporting cases in schools, and businesses such as restaurants no longer being obliged to collect customers' information for contact tracing.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said it is time for a balanced response to reopening and managing COVID-19.
"In the face of Omicron, I absolutely think we have to start to understand we have to learn to live with this virus," he said.
"We've let our lives be controlled for the last two years in a significant amount of fear and now we're going to have to change some of that thinking."
Vaccines are safe and effective, Moore said, with booster doses providing between 88 and 95 per cent protection against severe disease, and Ontario now has access to oral antiviral treatments. Paxlovid is available for COVID-positive people who are immunocompromised and older Ontarians who are unvaccinated and therefore at highest risk.
The public health goal right now is to protect vulnerable sectors such as long-term care and shelters, Moore said.
People should assume, given Omicron's high degree of transmissibility, that there is still an ongoing risk in the community, he said.
"We must individually try to reduce our risk over time by taking all the appropriate measures, getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, distancing, good hand hygiene, monitoring for symptoms," Moore said.
By the spring there will be a much lower rate of COVID-19 transmission with the weather improving and people spending more time outdoors, he said.
"I hope you're hearing hope in my voice," Moore said. "And as we head to that low endemic rate, that's when we review all public health measures that have been put in play."
Toronto resident Akbar Jassani, who had a knee surgery postponed indefinitely earlier this month, was overjoyed to hear Thursday that non-urgent surgeries would be restarting.
"I'm super happy. I'm hoping I can get my surgery scheduled as soon as possible,” he said in a phone interview.
"I'm sure everyone else that's needing surgery is hoping the same thing, so I hope everyone gets all the care that they need as soon as possible."
Jassani said the surgery will allow him to get back to the activities he loves, including soccer.
"Just hearing the news itself is such a relief to know that, OK, there is maybe an end in sight. So I really hope it sticks and I can kind of just start moving on with my life."
On Monday, indoor social gathering limits are set to increase from five to 10, and restaurants will be able to reopen their dining rooms at 50 per cent capacity.
Theatres will also be able to reopen, and "spectator areas" such as arenas and concert venues will be able to welcome back up to 500 guests, with smaller venues limited to half capacity.
Initially, guests at such venues weren't going to be allowed to consume food or beverages until the next phase of restrictions easing, currently set for Feb. 21, but now the government is permitting food and drink services at venues including indoor sporting events, concert venues, theatres, cinemas.
Cineplex said it had worked closely with the province on the change.
"Movies and popcorn go hand-in-hand and we are so happy that our guests in Ontario will be able to enjoy the full big screen experience when our theatres reopen on Monday," communications vice-president Sarah Van Lange said in a statement.
The province is also lifting a legal requirement for employees to work from home when possible, though Moore still recommends doing so.
There were 3,645 people reported to be in hospitals Thursday with COVID-19, and 599 in ICU. That was down from 4,016 people hospitalized and 608 in intensive care units the previous day.
The province also reported 70 more deaths due to the virus.
There were 5,852 more COVID-19 cases reported Thursday, but Public Health Ontario has said the real case count is likely higher because of changes to the province's testing policy.
This week the average positivity rate is 18 per cent, down from 22 per cent the previous week, Moore said.
Fifty-seven per cent of the province's long-term care homes are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.
Ontario isn't reporting data on COVID-19 cases in schools, but on Wednesdaythere were seven schools closed because of COVID-19 operational impacts and 370 schools with student and staff absence rates of 30 per cent or higher.
- with files from David Friend and Noushin Ziafati
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press