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Lockdown extended for northern Ontario, but students returning to class next week

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Following discussions with medical officers of health at northern Ontario health units, the province has announced that those regions will remain in lockdown until January 23.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, announced the decision in a press conference today alongside Dr. Dirk Huyer, coordinator of the provincial outbreak response. Williams noted that following the implementation of the provincial lockdown late last year, numbers across the province have continued to rise, leading to his discussions with the acting medical officers of health for input.

“We've looked at our northern Ontario data, and as you'll recall when we announced the lockdown, we were going to consider reviewing northern Ontario and whether we would have them come out of lockdown after two weeks, which would be this weekend,” Williams said.

“Our numbers there, where they had a whole bunch in green, now they only have one left in green... so their numbers have gone up. We had a teleconference and consultation with the seven northern medical officers of health and all were adamant they needed to stay in lockdown.”

The announcement comes days before the lockdown measures in the north were set to end, but also on the day that the province has reported the highest number of recorded cases and deaths in a single day with 3,519 cases and 89 deaths. While these numbers were expected due to modelling, Williams said it's still disappointing to see.

“While our models had said we would see that occurring, we did not want to see it going up that soon, that high, and that's unfortunate because that's not just numbers, they represent the family members,” he said.

While expanded lockdown measures were announced for the north of the province, extended virtual learning measures were only announced for southern Ontario. In northern regions including that of the Northwestern Health Unit, elementary and secondary schools have been cleared to resume in-person learning beginning next Monday, January 11.

In response to the increased community spread of the COVID virus in southern parts of the province, Williams said schools in those regions would continue to do virtual learning only until January 25 to help prevent the spread of the virus through schools, something he said they began to see ahead of the Christmas break that concerned him.

“We are concerned in the fact that we had a very successful fall in spite of lots of predictions to the opposite where people said due to cases and outbreaks we'd be lucky if we stayed open until Thanksgiving,” he said.

“We stayed open all the way right through to Christmas with in-class attendance.”

Part of the reason schools stayed open throughout the first part of the year, Williams said, is because of checks and balances put in place to keep students safe, including cohorting, mask requirements and adding public health nurses to the school system.”

In separate releases following Williams' press conference both Ontario premier Doug Ford and Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford noted that the newly announced measures in all parts of the province are just one more way of keeping communities as safe as possible.

“With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff, and all Ontarians safe," Ford said.

“That's why we're extending the remote learning period for students in Southern Ontario and the shutdown period for Northern Ontario, while continuing to provide financial relief for parents through the Support for Learners program as well as electricity rate relief for all time-of-use customers. We have to get the numbers down and today's measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus.”

“While proactive asymptomatic testing has confirmed that our schools are not a source of transmission, we all play an important role in keeping them safe by limiting the amount of movement and spread of COVID-19 in the community,” Rickford said.

“In the nearly two weeks since Ontario was moved into a Provincewide Shutdown, trends in key public health indicators have continued to worsen in Northern Ontario, including concerning trends in health system capacity, most notably in our hospitals. As Premier Ford said, we have to get the numbers down and today's measures will help us contain the spread of this deadly virus.”

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