The winter holiday season has arrived just as Ontario is dealing with a new variant of the novel coronavirus and a rise in new infections.
But unlike this time last year, when COVID-19 cases were soaring and vaccine coverage was near zero, politicians and public health officials are not discouraging travel and holiday gatherings this time around.
Still, while there may not be cause cancel your plans just yet, infectious disease experts say continued community spread and uncertainty around the emergence of the omicron strain mean people should exercise caution.
“People are going to have different risk tolerances and … there’s a lot of different things that we can do to mitigate risk,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga.
“Vaccination, of course, is the biggest one. There’s also … masking, distancing, being outdoors, improving ventilation.”
Better shape than last year
While Ontario is seeing a rise in cases — the seven-day average jumped 20 per cent this week compared to last — and new cases of the omicron variant are being identified daily, the province is in much better shape than last year because 77 per cent of the population is now fully vaccinated.
The number of people in hospital due to COVID-19 is much lower than it was in 2020 mainly because of vaccination, experts say, meaning the health-care system has some available capacity.
“The risk has become so much smaller of severe disease,” said Chakrabarti.
“If you’re vaccinated, the chance of you being hospitalized is extremely small at this point.”
In Ontario, the capacity limit for private gatherings, such as a holiday party inside a home, is 25 people. That’s also the limit for indoor public events.
Private outdoor gatherings can have up to 100 people and events in venues where people have to show proof of vaccination have no limits. Places of worship have the option to check proof of immunization documents and shed capacity and physical distancing rules.
But Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said just because Ontarians are allowed to gather with that many people, that doesn’t mean they should.
“If you are going to have a gathering, try to make it a small, reasonable number of people,” said Banerji.
“Just a small group of intimate friends or immediate family because we want to see those grandparents next year and the year after — we don’t want anyone who’s vulnerable to get sick.”
Banerji said it’s safer to gather with smaller groups of vaccinated people. To improve ventilation in indoor spaces, she said hosts should consider purchasing a HEPA air filtration device or, weather permitting, open windows to improve air flow.
She added that anyone who is eligible for a third dose of vaccine should get one as soon as they can.
Travel rules in flux
Experts say people travelling within Canada are much more likely to experience a smooth trip than if they’re heading to international destinations. That’s because travel restrictions and testing requirements have been in flux ever since news of the omicron variant emerged.
“If you haven’t booked any [international] trips yet, it might be better to do things locally,” Banerji said.
Following a previous announcement banning foreign travellers from some southern African countries, the federal government announced last week new testing requirements for those entering the country from outside Canada and the United States.
Air travellers will now be swabbed upon arrival and required to quarantine until they receive a negative result. That’s in addition to the existing pre-departure requirement of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival in Canada.
The new measures caused confusion and frustration, with some Canadians — including Canada’s junior women’s field hockey team and others trying to get home for the holidays — speaking out about the clashing restrictions they said made it effectively impossible to return home.
Over the weekend, the government tweaked travel rules for Canadians trying to return from South Africa, but criticism of the wider travel ban continues.
The U.S. government has also announced that Canadians and other foreign visitors must now provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 24 hours of departure, regardless of vaccination status, to enter the country as of Monday.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, said travel within Canada is reasonable if people take the same precautions they would at home.
He said anyone planning to leave the country should keep in mind that they could be affected by new restrictions.
“Buyer beware: if you are planning on travelling internationally, leave a lot of time at the back end in case you get put in quarantine or have extra testing requirements or acquire COVID-19 while travelling,” Chagla said in an interview on CBC News Network.
“It’s such a dynamic situation that you have to be prepared that your trip may not go as planned both leaving Canada or coming back to it.”