The Ontario government is changing its COVID-19 collection and reporting methods in an effort to better reflect the risk in individual communities.

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has estimated that only one in five COVID-19 cases are being confirmed at the moment, due to the changes in Ontario’s PCR testing requirements.

PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests are now being reserved for high-risk individuals who are considered the most vulnerable to COVID-19, hospital patients with severe symptoms and those working in the highest-risk settings.

Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford explains that due to this change, the government has transitioned into reporting data on hospitalization and intensive care unit admission rates, as opposed to just the overall case count.

“We’ve seen an unpredictable but important spike in Intensive Care Unit admissions and we are pivoting to those numbers as opposed to the total number of COVID-19 cases per day, which was kind of a fixation with Omicron that was kind of misleading,” said Rickford.

As of January 11, Ontario is reporting another 3,200 hospitalizations, 80 new intensive care unit admissions and 477 people are in ICUs overall. All of the statistics are seeing an increase from the 2,467 new hospitalizations and 438 total ICU patients from January 10’s data.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said just over half, 54 per cent, of the new hospitalizations are primarily due to COVID-19, while just under half, 46 per cent, were admitted for a different medical issue and happened to test positive.

She added that 83 per cent of ICU patients are being treated for COVID-19, while 17 per cent were admitted to the ICU for other reasons and later tested positive. Overall, the province reported just under 8,000 new cases today.

The Northwestern Health Unit has said they will also be transitioning COVID-19 reporting methods in the coming days to focus more on hospitalizations and ICU capacities, opposed to COVID-19 case counts.

The Ministry of Education has also said that school boards will stop collecting and reporting COVID-19 case numbers within schools, but school closures will still be announced.

These changes come as the Omicron variant continues to surge across the nation and aim to relieve backlogs, with many provinces falling behind in diagnostic testing and contact tracing.

“This has two faces,” adds Rickford. “Because a lot of us are vaccinated, it may be a cold or the flu, and many don’t have symptoms. But the ones that do get sick are in the ICU. We’re hitting that point across the province where it’s getting pretty dicey for ICU capacity. Tough to take action. [It] was a tough decision.”

Rickford, who also serves as the Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, notes like many across the province, the Lake of the Woods District Hospital in Kenora has moved to essential services only to protect their healthcare capacity.

In late December, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said early results showed that while the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is more transmissible, it produces 50 per cent less severe outcomes than other variants.

The Ontario government announced their new lockdown measures on January 3, which are set to stay in effect until January 26 at the earliest.