TORONTO — Aggressive vaccination and maintaining a stay-at-home order would help Ontario avoid a third wave and another lockdown, health experts advising the province said Thursday as the government prepared to ease restrictions for most regions next week.
The pandemic science advisory group said public health measures, including a provincial lockdown imposed on Boxing Day and stay-at-home order issued last month, have cut COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates across Ontario.
But Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the group, said more contagious variants of COVID-19 are spreading and currently account for five to 10 per cent of all cases.
That will likely cause cases to increase again by late February, Brown said, which is why strong public health measures like a stay-home order and vaccination of vulnerable groups are important.
"Without the ability to respond quickly and effectively, and without the ability to control spread in the community, we face the very real risk of a third wave, and potentially a third lockdown," he said.
The province could see "exponential growth" of the variant that emerged in the U.K. if it lifts public health measures and is unable to significantly reduce the rate at which the virus spreads, Brown added.
The group's projections on COVID-19 were issued a day after the province began a gradual reopening of its economy by lifting the stay-at-home order for three regions with low cases.
The rest of the province, except for three hot spots in the Greater Toronto Area, are set to have the order lifted next week when they transition back to a colour-coded restrictions system. Toronto, Peel Region and York Region are set to remain under the order until at least Feb. 22.
The province's top doctor said the government will announce Friday which categories of the restrictions system some regions will fall into, based on their case rates.
Dr. David Williams said people should not take the gradual reopening as a sign that all public health rules will lift.
Residents will still be asked to stay at home as much as possible and strictly adhere to masking and physical distancing, he said.
"We're in a precarious time," he said. "So, it's not as if the doors are thrown wide open."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Premier Doug Ford to halt Ontario's gradual economic reopening and extend lockdown measures in light of the new projections.
“I’m asking Doug Ford: stop in your tracks, turn this bus around,” she said. “We can’t go on as if this information doesn’t exist.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the information provided by the advisory group appears to directly contradict the reopening planned by the government.
"Ontario has been stuck in a costly and dangerous cycle of lockdown and reopening," he said. "Today’s modelling shows that this cycle is set to continue. This will cause more pain for workers and small businesses.
The experts advising the government also said the latest data shows focusing vaccination efforts on long-term care homes has started to pay off, with a declining number of daily deaths in the facilities.
However, the number of deaths in nursing homes in the second wave of the pandemic has now drawn nearly even with the number of deaths in the facilities from the first wave.
A total of 3,769 long-term care residents have died as a result of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Meanwhile, Ontario's minister of long-term care apologized Thursday afternoon for a statement earlier in the day that claimed all residents in the province's long-term care homes had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The province had promised to achieve that goal by Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for Long-term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton said residents in a few long-term care homes have yet to receive the first dose of the vaccine.
"Due to a miscommunication, it was reported that 100 per cent of homes had received their first vaccines," Krystle Caputo said. "In fact, 99.2 per cent of homes had the opportunity to receive their first doses. We expect these outstanding homes to be finished in the coming days."
Caputo said the government "regrets" the error.
Ontario reported 945 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, although public health officials said that number was underreported due to a migration of data from Toronto's case database to the provincial system.
- with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press