Ontario reported another 1,074 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, as an expert group advising the government on its pandemic response said that the province has entered a third wave fuelled by variants of concern.
The new cases include 313 in Toronto, 199 in Peel Region and 101 in York Region.
They come as labs completed 28,526 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the illness, and logged a positivity rate of 4.5 per cent, the highest since Feb. 2.
Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table said this morning that variants of concern — especially B117, which was first identified in the United Kingdom — now account for more than half of all new cases provincewide.
Further, the group said that nearly two-thirds of the province's 34 public health units are seeing effective reproductive numbers above one. In other words, the rate of new infections is growing in those areas.
The reproductive number for variants specifically is currently 1.38, well above the threshold for moving a particular health unit to the red "control" tier of Ontario's restrictions system.
Dr. Peter Jüni, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto and scientific director of the advisory table, said that the problem is largely concentrated within the Golden Horseshoe, which runs from Niagara Region in the west around the Lake Ontario to Simcoe in the east.
Jüni said he believes it is "inevitable" that the entire Golden Horseshoe move into the grey lockdown tier for a period.
"I hate to say it, I hate lockdowns as much as everybody else does," he told CBC News Network. "We're heading for a disaster if we now just say, 'Okay open up right now, all will be fine.' It won't. That is just wishful thinking."
Just a "few weeks" is all that would be needed to help limit the spread of variants as more people are vaccinated.
"It is a race against time, the new variants against vaccines but right now the new variants are winning," he added.
WATCH | Dr. Peter Jüni discusses a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario:
The advisory table's declaration comes after the Ontario Hospital Association issued a statement yesterday, saying it had reached the same conclusion partly based on the observation that the number of COVID-19 patients being treated in intensive care appears to be trending upward again.
According to Critical Care Services Ontario (CCSO), a government agency that compiles a daily report for hospitals and health organizations, there were 346 people with COVID-19 in the province's hospitals as of yesterday. Eighteen of those patients had been admitted in the previous 24 hours.
(The CCSO's number for ICU admissions differs from the figure reported by the Ministry of Health due to how each does its count. However the CCSO number is the more accurate reflection of the situation in ICUs in Ontario.)
Just how bad a third wave may be in terms of severe illnesses and deaths is difficult to forecast, experts told CBC Toronto earlier this month, because of unknowns about the variants, the continued rollout of vaccines and the approach of warmer weather.
Public health units that reported a double-digit increase in new cases today include:
Waterloo Region: 31
Thunder Bay: 29
Durham Region: 27
Halton Region: 27
Brant County: 21
Niagara Region: 21
Simcoe Muskoka: 15
Eastern Ontario: 10
(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit on a given day, because local units report figures at different times.)
The seven-day average of daily cases fell to 1,334.
Labs also confirmed 25 more cases of the B117 variant, bringing the total to 1,131. Two additional cases of the variant found in South Africa were also confirmed. Identifying a specific variant of concern requires whole genomic sequencing of a sample, an intensive process that leads to significant reporting lags, sometimes up to several weeks.
That means the figures above don't represent the actual number of cases linked to variants of concern. As of yesterday, a total of 9,131 samples that tested positive for COVID-19 had also screened positive for a tell-tale mutation that points to the presence of a variant of concern. Those samples will eventually all undergo whole genomic sequencing.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education reported another 367 school-related cases were confirmed between last Friday afternoon and yesterday afternoon: 301 students and 66 staff members. Twenty-seven of Ontario's 4,828 publicly-funded schools, or about 0.6 per cent, are currently closed due to COVID-19 cases.
The Ministry of Health also recorded the deaths of 11 more people with the illness, bringing the official toll to 7,173.
Public health units administered 51,579 doses of COVID-19 vaccines yesterday, the second-most on a single day so far. A total of 288,918 people in Ontario have now received both doses of a vaccine.
Residents aged 80 and older continued to book appointments for a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Premier Doug Ford said on Twitter that more than 133,000 spots were booked yesterday, the first day the online portal and call centre became available in most of the province.
During a news conference on Tuesday, Ford acknowledged issues with the online booking system after many people reported long wait times and error messages.
"We knew there would be bumps in the road ... please log back on or call today to book your appointment," Ford said.
He added over 100,000 people had already booked appointments by mid-day Tuesday.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) announced this morning that it has revised its recommendations for the AstraZeneca vaccine and that it can be used for Canadians 65 and older.
NACI said the change followed a review of three real-world studies that suggested the vaccine is safe and effective in older seniors.
Ford said the change was good news, but expressed frustration that it came days after Ontario used the earlier guidance to target distribution of the shot to people aged 60-64 years old.
He said the province will fulfil the commitment it made to people in that age group as it incorporates the new advice.
"It just messes everything up, to be very frank with you," he said. "We have everything set up, get everyone lined up, and all of a sudden, with no notice today, now we can move the goal posts again. So now we have to change everything."
York Region moves to vaccinate health care workers
York Region has started taking bookings for health care workers who fall in the province's Phase One priority group after largely vaccinating everyone aged 80 and over, raising questions about why seniors 70-plus aren't allowed to book.
The latest group of health-care workers to become eligible includes, but is not limited to: acupuncturists, physiotherapists, massage therapists and naturopaths.
The province has prioritized this group due to the fact they interact with patients on a regular basis.
"We have already been working through the highest priority groups in Phase One and we believe we've largely completed those, and so we're moving down to the next priority," Dr. Karim Kurji, the region's chief medical officer of health, told CBC Toronto on Tuesday.
Kurji added the region would be getting to those under 80 after this group is fully vaccinated, as per the provincial guidelines.
"We are following the provincial prioritization," he said.
When asked about the move in York, Ford said all 34 public health units in Ontario are "going at a different pace," but that it was important to finish the 80-plus group first.
"Let's get the 80-year-old plus done then we move to the next stage. I'm going to talk to the public health officer out in York and see what the deal is," Ford said.
Kurji said he hopes to move onto the next phase, those under 80, "as rapidly as we possibly can," but added there are approximately 15,000 people included in this group.
Once they move onto the next phase, Kurji estimates his region will be moving down through the age groups every week to 10 days.
It's unclear when Ontario will move to Phase 2 of its vaccine rollout plan.
Man, 31, dies after Peterborough student residence outbreak
Meanwhile, Peterborough Public Health reported on Tuesday that a 31-year-old man died following the worst COVID-19 outbreak the city has seen since the start of the pandemic.
The man, believed to be the youngest person to die with the virus in the area, was living at Severn Court Student Residence where an outbreak occurred just over two weeks ago.
Peterborough Public Health said in a news release that he was diagnosed "with a COVID-19 variant of concern and hospitalized outside the region last week before passing away [Monday]."
"We send our deepest condolences to the family, and know that this is a painful tragedy for our entire community," said Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, Medical Officer of Health, said in the release.
"As the youngest person to die locally from COVID-19, it reminds us how serious this pandemic is, that youth are not immune from its worst outcomes, and that we all have a role to play in ending it to prevent future tragedies," she continued.
According to Fleming College news release from March 3, the outbreak was due to unauthorized gatherings on Feb. 20 at the private, off-campus residence.
Fleming College President Maureen Adamson told CBC News that the school would be launching its own investigation in addition to one already in progress by Peterborough Public Health and local police.
"We will implement our own review of those involved, whether they're organizers or attendees, and we will determine what is the appropriate action," Adamson said. "That could be anywhere from behavioural contracts to community service, right to expelling the students."
"This is the worst possible outcome of the actions of a few reckless, selfish people and we are grieving, we are sad and we will address this," she said.
Overall, 59 people tested positive for COVID-19 during the outbreak at the residence, all of whom screened positive for a variant of concern.
The release said most of the cases are now resolved, with just five cases still active.