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Ontario reports 1,009 new COVID-19 cases as elementary school-linked outbreaks reach new high

Ontario reported 1,009 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, as the number of elementary school-related outbreaks of the illness reached a new pandemic high for a second day. 

239 ongoing COVID outbreaks linked to elementary schools

Ontario announced in late November that students would be given take-home COVID tests to use over winter break, if their families wish to do so. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario reported 1,009 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, as the number of elementary school-related outbreaks of the illness reached a new pandemic high for a second day. 

According to the province, there are 260 active outbreaks connected to schools, with 239 linked to elementary schools. 

That's up from the 219 elementary school-related outbreaks reported on Tuesday. Before yesterday, the previous pandemic high was 214 logged on April 14 — two days after the province announced that schools would close as part of its effort to contain the third wave of the pandemic.

In recent weeks, schools have been the setting for the bulk of COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario. In this context, an outbreak is defined as two or more lab-confirmed cases in students, staff or visitors where at least one of the infections has an epidemiological link, meaning the case was transmitted within the school, not in the wider community.

The province reported its highest single-day tally of school-related cases today, with 252. Ten, or about 0.2 per cent, of Ontario's 4,844 publicly funded schools are currently closed due to the virus. 

Relatedly, as of Tuesday, about 23.6 per cent of children aged five to 11 in the province had received a first dose of vaccine.

Meanwhile, today's case count is up from the 780 reported at the same time last week, a 29 per cent jump.

The seven-day average of daily cases climbed to 1,007, a 23 per cent increase over last Wednesday. 

The number of patients being treated for COVID-related illnesses in intensive care units fell to 155, down from 165. Of those patients, 97 needed a ventilator to breathe.

Ontario's science advisory table forecasted in its latest modelling, released on Tuesday, that the province could see between 250 and 400 COVID patients in ICUs by the latter part of January, depending on the pace of vaccinations.

In response, the government said the health-care system can "safely admit" about 300 COVID patients to ICUs without the need to postpone other urgent care. 

The Ministry of Health also reported the deaths of eight more people with COVID-19, pushing the official toll to 10,044.

Here are some other key pandemic indicators and figures from the ministry's daily provincial update:

Tests completed in the previous 24 hours: 38,502, with a 3.3 per cent positivity rate. 

Active cases: 8,351, down 128 from Tuesday.

Vaccinations: Nearly 81 per cent of all eligible Ontarians have had two doses.

Government defends rapid test strategy

As new cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in 26 of Ontario's 34 public health units, there have been growing calls from some health professionals, as well as from opposition politicians, for rapid tests to be made available for free to anyone who wants one — particularly with the holiday season approaching.

Peter Jüni, scientific director of the COVID-19 advisory table, said this week that while it's still unclear how rapid tests perform with the emerging omicron variant, they are effective with the Delta variant that accounts for the bulk of Ontario's cases.

"It makes sense from a scientific perspective to use rapid tests more frequently, for example, schools, in workplaces, in congregate settings, and to make rapid tests more available in this province," Jüni said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The science table is set to release updated recommendations this week for the use of rapid tests, he added.

Asked by the opposition during question period about the availability and costs of rapid tests in many instances — $40 or so at most pharmacies — Health Minister Christine Elliott caused some confusion when she seemed to suggest that they are in fact free except for those who need one for travel-related purposes.

In a follow up statement issued by her office, a spokesperson said that Elliott was referring to the fact that anyone who needs a lab-based PCR test, as per the province's guidelines — that is, someone who is showing symptoms of COVID or has been designated a close contact of a confirmed case — can get one for free.

The statement noted that free rapid tests are available through thousands of settings such as workplaces, some schools and child-care centres and that pop-up sites in some high-traffic settings will offer free rapid tests to asymptomatic individuals through the holiday season.

The province also plans to distribute about 11 million rapid tests for students to take home with them over the winter holidays. Use of the tests will be voluntarily and a negative result will not be required for students to return to class in January.

But aside from that holiday plan, rapid tests have not been made available to all students, though families across the province have sought access to them.

The Ministry of Health has said that the province currently has 5.75 million rapid antigen tests in its inventory, and as of Nov. 29, has handed out 33.35 million.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said at a Tuesday briefing that the province is working with the federal government to broaden its testing strategy, and expects to make an announcement on the increased availability of tests in the coming weeks.

Omicron variant detected in cluster in southwestern Ontario

The omicron variant has been detected in a large cluster of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Ontario.

The Middlesex-London Health Unit says it received the results of a whole genome sequencing sample Tuesday from an individual who is part of a cluster of at least 40 COVID-19 cases in the region.

Public health officials say they continue to investigate the cases that have been linked to the arrival of two travellers from Nigeria, who arrived in London in late November.

The health unit says cases in this cluster have been associated with a number of schools, child-care centres and a church in south London.

More than 171 high-risk close contacts have been identified.

With files from Lucas Powers and The Canadian Press

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