Ontario could see 6,500 new daily cases of COVID-19 in December, new modelling shows

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TORONTO — Ontario could see as many as 6,500 new daily cases of COVID-19 by mid-December unless steps are taken to limit the spread of the virus, newly released projections showed Thursday as the province marked another record for new infections.

The new modelling predicts the province will reach 2,500 new daily cases by that time if the growth rate is at three per cent, or 6,500 if growth is at five per cent. 

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, one of the experts behind the projections, said a five per cent growth rate is in line with the current situation, or even "slightly optimistic." The growth rate over the last three days was six per cent, he said.

Brown said more restrictions should be put in place in some of the hot spot areas in order to reduce cases and the impact on the health-care system. Otherwise, the case count in Ontario will surpass that in several European jurisdictions that have implemented some form of lockdown, he said.

"If we continue on with the current level of restrictions, I would not expect to see any deviation from the current results, you'd continue to see growth," he said Thursday.

"I do not believe that there's a way that the cases will change without action."

Even if new measures are imposed, it will take a while for improvements to appear, he said.

The new projections for how the virus might spread in Ontario come as the province has reported daily case increases above 1,000 for the past week, and a record 1,575 on Thursday.

They also come amid ongoing criticism of the province's new tiered system for managing COVID-19 measures, which places local health units in green, yellow, orange, red, or lockdown categories based on metrics such as the number of cases per 100,000 people.

A group representing tens of thousands of Ontario physicians called Thursday for the government to lower the thresholds for imposing stricter measures, saying the framework is too lax, particularly at a time when case counts are surging.

The Ontario Medical Association said the criteria to move from one alert level to the other should be much lower - as much as 50 per cent lower in some cases - and the higher levels should include a ban on indoor dining in restaurants and bars. 

Meanwhile, a report in the Toronto Star said the provincial government ignored the advice of its own public health agency in designing the system introduced last week. 

The newspaper reported that while Health Minister Christine Elliott said the framework was created after consulting with two health-care advisory groups, one group said it wasn't consulted and a member of the other said she never saw the final plan before its release. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday the report was "totally inaccurate" and defended the colour-coded system, maintaining it is meant to serve as a baseline for local health authorities to build on with additional measures.

Ford said the framework was proposed by Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, and dismissed the criticism as simply a difference of opinion within the medical community. 

As the new projections were announced, Williams stressed the numbers reflect infections that took place before the new system took effect, but didn't rule out any future amendments.

"The framework has not been out for a week yet and we have to see what's going to happen with that," he said.

The modelling shows key indicators for the pandemic continue to worsen, though the impact varies from region to region.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive at the end of last week ranged from 1.3 in the Eastern Ontario public health unit to just over 10 in Peel Region, one of the provincial hot spots.

Cases and deaths in long-term care homes continued to rise, the document shows. Out of the 196 resident deaths since Aug. 10, 71 took place over the last seven days.

The document lays out projections for a growth rate in cases of three and five per cent, but Brown said either scenario will see the strain on intensive care units pass the threshold for cancelling surgeries within the next two weeks.

The province also reported 18 new deaths related to the novel coronavirus on Thursday.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said there were 472 new cases in Toronto, 448 in Peel Region, 155 in York Region and 91 in Ottawa.

The province said 917 more cases are considered resolved, and the nearly 39,600 tests have been completed since the last daily report.

In total, 431 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 98 in intensive care.

Ninety-four long-term care homes are currently experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19, with 695 active cases among residents and 435 among staff.

The latest figures bring the total of COVID-19 cases in Ontario to 89,784, with 3,293 deaths, and 75,228 cases resolved.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020. 

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press