A predicted warmer than average spring and the continued rollout of vaccines bodes well for COVID-19 case counts to drop in the coming months, experts say.
But doctors are quick to add that comes with the caveat of continued stringent adherence to public health advice over the next few weeks and beyond so variants of the novel coronavirus don't rapidly spread in Ontario, overwhelming the health-care system.
"If we are very careful, we can imagine a much better summer, and a better summer is the payoff from the stay at home order and the vaccinations. But if we let up, we will with little doubt lose the gains that we've worked so hard for," said Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table at a news conference Thursday.
"A better summer is in sight if we work for it now."
No matter the year, Canadians hope for a mild spring ushering in warm weather as soon as winter abates — but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the stakes are immeasurably higher. Warmer temperatures allow people to more easily gather outdoors, where the virus is less of a threat. Case counts throughout Ontario dropped significantly last summer, only to rise to new heights through the fall and winter.
That's why it's welcome news that Environment Canada's models are suggesting it's going to be a warmer and milder than normal March this year.
"March, April [and] May are all looking like warmer than normal," the federal agency's senior climatologist David Phillips told CBC News.
Still, this is Canada — so people should expect some yo-yoing between decent and sludgy weather in the coming weeks, Phillips added.
An 'even better and more open' summer
Though he'd struck a very sombre tone in recent news conferences when laying out modelling projections, Brown said Thursday that the coming summer could be "even better and more open than last summer."
He based that prediction on a variety of factors, such as the combination of vaccination and public health measures that have helped reduce virus transmission. More time outside in warmer weather with less time in enclosed spaces should only help break transmission of the disease even more.
"Looking at historical models, like the 1918 influenza pandemic, we believe that the introduction of vaccination [and] the effective use of public health measures may mean that we're both able to control spread more, but also [establish] immunity in a much more safe and reliable way than in previous pandemics, where we truly had to rely on the spread of infection alone," Brown said.
Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said if all goes well, Ontario could expect to see "at worst" similar COVID-19 case counts as the province saw last summer.
"But we'll probably see an even better situation because many of us now have immune experience with [the virus] … either because we've actually been infected, or increasingly because we've been vaccinated," Fisman said.
"That's going to make whatever happened last summer happen to a lesser degree because many of us are protected."
Avoiding a 3rd wave
Officials hailed Health Canada's approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday as a "huge deal" for the province's immunization effort. According to Friday's figures, 258,014 people have received both doses of a vaccine.
After almost a year of disruption, Fisman says we can now "see the finish line" for the pandemic in Canada — but with a minefield of variants of concern that are thought to be more transmissible in the way.
"We just need to pick our way carefully through the minefield for these next few weeks, so we don't have another wave," he said.
Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of the province's Science Advisory Table, similarly warned that people have to be vigilant about the coronavirus variants over the next few weeks. He said that will have to happen before anyone is able to reap any benefits in the summer months.
"What we now need to do is stick to the playbooks much more stringently than before," Juni said.
"Do this now a bit longer and try to keep the numbers low. They're still quite high."