Toronto officials say they are ramping up city-run immunization clinics to meet expected demand for third doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Mayor John Tory said the city plans to nearly double the capacity of the five mass immunization clinics it operates. The clinics will begin to operate seven days a week with expanded hours, meaning they will have the potential to administer 41,000 doses weekly.
"We have been taking a calm but cautious and determined approach to the Omicron variant," Tory told reporters at a virtual news conference at city hall on Wednesday.
"The advice from public health officials is clear. We need to roll out as many booster shots to as many people as possible who are eligible as soon as possible. The good news? We are off to a good start on third doses."
More than 270,000 people in Toronto have already received their booster shots. Most residents in long-term care homes in Toronto got third doses as part of a coordinated flu shot campaign.
Tory said 20,000 more appointments have already been added to the booking system of city-run clinics.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the province will expand eligibility for third doses to Ontarians 18 years of age and older and will shorten the interval between second and third doses to three months. Tory said the city will prepare for this change because it means more people will be eligible for booster shots starting on Monday.
"No doubt, this will lead to announcing even more enhancements in the coming days. No option is off the table in terms of meeting that increased need and expanding that capacity. We will explore every opportunity to ramp up that capacity," Tory said.
Team Toronto, the city's large vaccination network, is also looking at ways to increase capacity through new locations and expanded operations, Tory said. The network wants to add pharmacies to the list of the 450 currently administering COVID-19 vaccines.
Toronto has 39 Omicron cases, medical officer says
Dr. Na-Koshie Lamptey, the city's deputy medical officer of health, said data from Wednesday shows there are 39 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in Toronto with more samples undergoing genome sequencing.
Lamptey said not all cases are linked to travel and that means there is local community transmission of the variant.
Omicron spreads rapidly, is highly transmissible and is quickly becoming the dominant strain in Ontario, she said.
Because of its rapid spread, the variant could lead to a large number of infections and even a small percentage of new cases could strain the health care system, she said. A booster shot increases a person's immune response against the variant, she added.
Toronto residents need to continue to be careful to prevent transmission, she said.
"To protect and enjoy our holiday season, we need to reduce our in-person connections with other people as much as possible right now. Over the holiday season, limit the number and size of gatherings you attend. Reducing in-person contact is the fastest way to slow this virus," she said.
Tory, for his part, urged residents not to go from a small Christmas dinner for two, which some people held last year, to a full-blown family gathering this year.
"Please be careful how you socialize and please be careful who you socialize with," Tory said. "It's time for continued caution."
Council approves extension of mandatory mask bylaw
Tory and Lamptey spoke to reporters after city council on Wednesday approved an extension of its COVID-19 bylaws.
The bylaws include mandatory masking, which requires everyone to wear masks in all indoor public settings, such as businesses and common areas in apartments and condos.
Apartment buildings are also required under these bylaws to provide hand hygiene stations or hand sanitizer in common areas. Non-essential common areas are also supposed to be closed.
"These bylaws are a temporary and necessary response to the pandemic to help save lives and protect people," Tory said in a news release on Wednesday.
MLSE working to implement capacity limit change
Meanwhile, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment said in a statement on Wednesday that it supports a provincial government decision to introduce capacity limits of 50 per cent in sports venues with an indoor capacity of more than 1,000 people. The restriction comes into effect Saturday at 12:01 a.m.
"Our ticketing team is currently working through the logistics of implementing this change and will provide follow up details to all ticket holders within 24 hours," MLSE said in the statement.
MLSE's venue operations team will also implement an "enhanced mask protocol" that will require all patrons to wear masks or risk being asked to leave.
The protocol, called "Operation Mask Up (or out),"will begin with Saturday's Toronto Raptors game
MLSE said it encourages all fans to get vaccinated and to follow public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The city's news conference came after the Toronto District School Board asked students to take home their personal belongings and electronic devices as the board prepares for the possibility of a switch to remote learning in the new year.
In a memo to parents and caregivers, the board said it hasn't received any indication from Ontario's education ministry that schools will close, but wants to make sure it can make a transition "smoothly and efficiently."
"As we prepare for the winter break, we are of course looking ahead to the new year and what learning may look like as we return to school in January," the TDSB said.
"As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Toronto, so too does the possibility of individual classes or schools moving to remote learning for a period of time."
22 people with COVID-19 in Toronto hospitals, 4 in ICUs
On Wednesday, Toronto reported 498 new cases of COVID-19.
City pandemic data shows that there are 22 people in hospitals in the city with COVID-19, four in intensive care units and four needing ventilators to breathe. A total of 3,720 people have died of the virus in Toronto.
As of Monday, more than 88 per cent of Toronto residents aged 12 and older have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while more than 86 per cent have received two doses.
The city said 35 per cent of children in Toronto age five to 11 have now received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. The number represents more than one in every three children in the city.