Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he'll ask the province's health experts to come up with a plan to allow more businesses to reopen in the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 after a 28-day period of tighter public health restrictions expires next month.
Ford made the announcement as the province reported another 896 cases of COVID-19, and saw the seven-day average of daily cases climb above 900 for the first time in the pandemic. New modelling — which you can read for yourself at the bottom of this story — shows Ontario can expect to see between 800-1,200 cases per day in the coming weeks. Those case numbers are much higher than when Ontario initially instigated widespread lockdowns back in the spring, though hospitalizations are currently at a lower number than that period.
At the province's daily press conference Friday, Ford said he has asked Ontario's health team to look at lifting modified Stage 2 restrictions "in a safe manner."
"Obviously we are having significant community spread of COVID-19 in certain parts of the province," Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said.
"The numbers are still going up, but they're going up slower. So what it's saying to us is we can perhaps look at modifying the conditions."
Yaffe said medical officials are continuing to review the data, and are looking at a number of factors when it comes to making those decisions, including things like the number of cases, health system capacity, and ability to contact-trace.
When it comes to contact tracing, the province's newest projections show there is a substantial variation. depending on location, in the percentage of cases where no epidemiological link could be found — which essentially means cases where public health units cannot figure out where the infection happened.
In Toronto, that number stands at 65 per cent. The next highest is Ottawa, at 48.8 per cent.
Still, Ford said Friday that compared to places like Spain or the United States, Ontario's outlook isn't so bad.
"We aren't doing terrible compared to the rest of the world. We're doing pretty good, actually," Ford said.
When asked about new federal modelling released Friday that suggests Canadians must reduce the number of close contacts they have with other people by 25 per cent in order to suppress the second wave of COVID-19, Yaffe confirmed that provincial health officials will review the number of people allowed to gather both indoors and outdoors.
"We really need to try and minimize the amount of interaction we have with other people," she said.
Bulk of cases largely found in 4 regions
Friday's newly confirmed cases were mostly found in four public health units:
Peel Region: 173
York Region: 115
Several other areas also saw double-digit increases:
Halton Region: 37
Durham Region: 32
Eastern Ontario: 27
Simcoe Muskoka: 22
Waterloo Region: 12
The seven-day average, which now stands at about 909, is a helpful measure because it limits noise in the data, offering a clearer picture of longer-term trends in new cases rather than day to day comparisons. So far this week, every day has seen more new infections than the same day last week.
Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease physician at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network, said with numbers this high and the province doing "substantially fewer" tests than its initial target, it is too early to talk about reopening.
"One of the principles of being able to open up is that you have public health capacity. We don't have public health capacity right now," Morris told CBC Toronto. "So for the premier or anyone else to say it's okay to open up, we've already exceeded our public health capacity. In fact we have exceeded it repeatedly, we've exceeded it for testing, we've exceeded it for contact tracing."
Morris said case numbers must go down rather than increasing slowly before the province moves forward with any reopening plans.
"For us to say that we can start thinking about opening up, I would argue let's demonstrate that we have the capacity to respond in an effective manner before we can do that," Morris said.
Today's cases come as the province's labs completed 41,008 tests for the virus. That's more than any other day this week, and, with the exception of Oct. 24, the most in about two weeks. Ontario has capacity for some 45,000 tests per day, public health officials say.
The province also added nine deaths to its official toll, which is now 3,127. Just more than 2,000 of those deaths, or about 64 per cent, were residents in long-term care facilities.
Thus far into the second wave of COVID-19 that began in late August, the death rate has stayed relatively steady despite a surge in new cases. Medical experts attribute this to a number of factors, including the average age of those contracting the illness now and improvements in how COVID-19 patients are treated.
The number of people in Ontario hospitals with confirmed cases of the illness fell by eight today, down to 314. Seventy-five, a decrease of two, are being treated in intensive care units, while 52 are on ventilators.
Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, who is advising the province on its pandemic response, said Thursday that Ontario is seeing "slower growth" in hospitalizations and ICU usage than it originally expected, but noted growth still exists, which is "still a cause for concern."
There are currently 7,669 confirmed, active cases of COVID-19 provincewide, a new record high. That's nearly 2,000 more than during the spring peak in late April. More than half of the cases still active are in Toronto proper.
(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found in the Ministry of Health's daily update, which includes data from up until 4 p.m. the previous day. The number of cases for any particular region on a given day may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, which often avoid lag times found in the provincial system.)
Hydro rates go up this weekend
Electricity rates are set to rise this weekend in Ontario, with the average customer seeing a nearly two per cent increase to their hydro bill compared to before the pandemic.
Earlier this month, the Ontario Energy Board announced new prices for households and small businesses that take effect on Sunday, Nov. 1.
That's also the day the provincial government's COVID-19 rate relief plan, which has been in place since late March, comes to an end.
The relief plan had meant about five million customers subject to so-called "time-of-use" pricing, which varies depending on the day, had instead been paying a flat rate.
That rate was initially 10.1 cents per kilowatt hour, increasing to 12.8 cents in June — well below peak-hour pricing before the pandemic.
On Sunday, those customers will return to time-of-use billing unless they opt out, with prices varying from 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour during off-peak hours up to 21.7 cents during on-peak times.
Here's Ontario's latest COVID-19 modelling data: