The latest coronavirus data by Ontario’s COVID-19 science and modelling advisory tables show cases overall are declining, but experts warn public health restrictions should stay in place to counter the “significant threat” that the U.K. variant poses to getting the pandemic under control.
“The new variants of concern, the mutated SARS-CoV-2 virus, are clearly spreading in the community and will likely be the dominant version of the virus in March,” Dr. Adelsteinn Brown, co-chair of the science advisory table and dean of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told reporters Thursday afternoon.
Officials said the variant is likely at least 30 per cent more transmissible compared to COVID-19 and evidence out of the United Kingdom suggests there is potentially a higher chance of death.
Brown said government action and public health interventions will play a key role in response to COVID-19 variants, noting cases will likely continue to decline if measures stay in place. He even noted schools could potentially reopen for in-person learning.
“International evidence and some of the modelling we have done today suggests that if we are careful and watch the data carefully, it should be possible to control the spread of the disease with schools open,” Brown said.
“It will be a challenge for the province’s leaders and it may require different approaches in different regions, but it is possible.”
When asked if there’s a potential return-to-school date in mind, both Brown and Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, didn’t provide a firm answer, noting additional data is needed.
“We’re doing better now than we were two weeks ago … but we’re nowhere near the clear yet,” Brown said.
Currently, the data released showed Ontario’s COVID-19 cases have been decreasing since the start of a provincial lockdown at the end of December. That decline continued after a stay-at-home order was imposed on Jan. 14.
The province is now projecting a further decrease that could see Ontario’s case count drop to between 1,000 and 2,000 per day by the end of February.
The U.K. variant, however, could cause cases to spike again if precautions aren’t taken, Brown said. The experience of other countries shows that measures like wearing masks and practicing physical distancing can help keep it under control, he said.
“If we are able to keep our reproduction number down far enough as (it) becomes the dominant variant, we may be able to do things like keep schools open,” he said.
He also highlighted how deaths at the province’s long-term care homes are increasing as capacity at intensive care units continues to remain strained with half of the province’s facilities only having one or two free intensive care beds, even though hospitalizations have decreased in recent days.
“We’re still on track to surpass the number of deaths in long-term care that happened in the first wave, and so interventions to reduce deaths in long-term care will be critical,” Brown said.
When it comes to Ontario’s long-term care homes, officials said 256 out of 626 facilities have COVID-19 outbreaks and 80 out of the 256 homes have one case.
Since Jan. 1, the province reported 596 long-term care home residents and three staff members have died after contracting COVID-19.
However, since Jan. 14, which also coincided with the provincial stay-at-home order coming into effect, officials said cases began declining from the highest volume of new cases seen over the past five months.
According to the most recent modelling data, Peel Region continues to lead the total new cases per 100,000 residents a week across Ontario’s 35 public health units with 200 cases for every 100,000.
Windsor-Essex comes second with 196 followed by Niagara Region with 171, Toronto with 170, Lambton with 154, York Region with 127, Waterloo Region with 122, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph with 121 and Huron-Perth with 100.
Ontario reported 2,093 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 56 more deaths linked to the virus.
The province also said it had previously misinterpreted data on the number of people who received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, leading to an incorrect doubling of that figure in earlier updates.
It said 55,286 people have been fully inoculated against COVID-19. A total of 317,240 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the province so far.
— With files from The Canadian Press