TORONTO — More infectious COVID-19 variants will likely make up 40 per cent of new cases in Ontario by mid-March, an expert group said Thursday, calling it a "minefield" the province will need to navigate very carefully.
The science group, which advises the province on the pandemic, said the next few weeks will be critical to both controlling and understanding more infectious variants of concern that are continuing to spread quickly.
Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the group, compared the weeks ahead to a "minefield" and urged continued vigilance when it comes to public health measures.
"There is no easy path through minefield. Just care and caution at each step," Brown said.
"The next few weeks will give us a map through the minefield but we cannot afford to rush through the minefield without that map."
The data show that declines in cases and hospitalizations that followed strict lockdown measures have begun to slow.
The numbers also show cases and test positivity rates starting to trend upwards across the province, including in hot spots Toronto, Peel Region and York Region.
The science group's projections show hospitalizations will likely rise as variants spread and intensive care capacity will be strained over the next month.
Even in the group's best-case scenario, intensive care bed occupancy will likely remain at, or far above, the threshold at which quality of care is impacted.
Case growth will depend on how well the variants are controlled, according to the modelling.
Those variants do not appear to have spread as quickly as anticipated, Brown said, but in the most likely scenario, the province will see around 2,000 new cases per day by the end of March. In the worst-case scenario, it would be closer to 4,000 cases per day, similar to the growth seen in other jurisdictions like the United Kingdom where virus variants have taken hold.
"If we let up, we will with little doubt lose the gains that we’ve worked so hard for," Brown said.
The group said vaccinating high-risk communities and older people will drive down hospitalizations and deaths.
The new numbers showed that vaccinations in long-term care, combined with lockdowns, have resulted in a rapid drop in infections and deaths.
The group noted that the province will need to react quickly with strong public health measures when flare-ups happen.
That recommendation comes as the government ponders whether to impose stronger public health restrictions on regions with rising COVID-19 case numbers.
Cabinet will decide tomorrow whether to move the Thunder Bay area into lockdown after rising infection numbers have forced several school closures and other outbreaks among vulnerable populations over the last several weeks.
Dr. David Williams, the province's top doctor, said Thursday that he's recommended a potential lockdown for the region, which is a travel hub for northern Indigenous communities with few resources to support case surges.
"We want to keep it at bay out of there and make sure we protect those remote communities," Williams said.
Brown noted in his presentation the need to limit travel between regions, which has potential to bring infectious variants into areas with low levels of infection and less protections in place.
Williams said the travel issue is being discussed with Simcoe Muskoka, where the region's top doctor has said tighter restrictions are needed to limit travel into and throughout his area, which has dealt with several outbreaks driven by variants.
He also commented on the "dynamic" situation in the Greater Toronto Area, where two hot spots -- Peel and Toronto -- are under an extended stay-at-home order, while neighbouring York Region with similar high case rates has moved to the "red" zone of the province's pandemic framework, allowing more businesses to open.
"We'll continue to have discussions with the medical officers in around the (Greater Toronto Area) during this tenuous time," Williams said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press