Variants must be controlled to prevent third wave, say Ontario's science advisors

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TORONTO — Ontario's ability to control the spread of COVID-19 variants over the next few weeks will determine if there will be a third wave of infection, the province's science advisors said Thursday.

Residents must continue masking and physical distancing even as vaccinations increase in order to prevent cases of the more contagious variants from overwhelming the health system, Ontario's Science Advisory Table said as it released new pandemic projections.

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the group, stressed that the province has arrived at a critical juncture of the pandemic as more people begin to get vaccinated, variants of concern increase, and public health restrictions ease.

The actions of individuals over the new few weeks will determine the quality of summer in Ontario, he said.

"We know exactly what to do," Brown said. "Although it's hard, and I know that everyone is at their limits, just a bit more discipline with masking and distancing will help bring cases down."

The group's latest projections showed that the drive in recent months to vaccinate residents and workers in long-term care has paid off in declining illness, with no resident deaths from COVID-19 in the last five days.

But Brown warned that progress against the virus has stalled outside that sector. Declines in community cases and test positivity rates have levelled off as mobility rates jump in the aftermath of a provincial lockdown lifting, he said.

The projections estimate that in the next two to three weeks, COVID-19 rates could grow to up to 8,000 new cases a day under the worst case scenario, depending on the spread of variants.

If public health measures are followed and restrictions are put in place to contain any sudden spikes, that rate could be held to just under 2,000 cases a day, the projections indicated.

"There is a lot of uncertainty right now and with that, a lot of risk, and a lot of danger," Brown said.

If case rates are again allowed to increase, there remains a danger that Ontario's hospital system will be overwhelmed, Brown warned.

Even under an optimistic scenario, which sees a "small" capacity increase, the province could still see 400 patients occupying intensive care beds weekly, he said.

"It's important to note that this is not (just) a small increase," he said. "This is an increase on top of an already strained system which creates a challenge in access to care."

Ontario's chief medical officer of health warned that the province remains in a "minefield" and must proceed with caution.

He pointed to the use of the province's "emergency brake" measure on Thursday to move the Sudbury area into a lockdown because of a sudden increase of virus outbreaks linked to variants.

"This is a clear demonstration of why in Ontario we're going to have to be very careful and move quickly as we try and curtail and limit especially these variants of concern," he said.

Sudbury has been in the second-strictest "red" category of the province's pandemic framework. The government said the region's case rates increased by 54 per cent between March 3 and March 9, to 75.9 cases per 100,000 people.

The emergency brake measure was applied in the Thunder Bay and Simcoe Muskoka areas last month, moving those regions into lockdown from less restrictive levels of the framework after worrying pandemic trends emerged.

Williams said the province does not want to reimpose further restrictions anywhere in the province after just having lifted them in recent weeks, but did not rule it out.

"If there needs to be a state of emergency, again, that's something that can be covered off," he said. "It's something we would rather not do."

Ontario reported 1,092 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 10 more deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press