Ontario’s decision to end mandatory mask-wearing in most public settings in March is at least partly responsible for the province’s rapidly growing sixth wave, research released by a provincial body says.
The BA.2 subvariant made up more than half of Ontario’s cases almost a month ago. According to Public Health Ontario, 54 per cent of cases recorded between March 13 and March 19 were attributed to the subvariant, up from 6.3 per cent between Jan. 23 and 29.
The new subvariant is even more transmissible than Omicron, the research said.
Ontario lifted mandatory masks in most public settings on March 21, although masks are still required in some places including public transit and long-term care homes.
“Close monitoring of epidemiological trends since March 21, 2022, suggests a corresponding temporal association with a subsequent increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations,” the Public Health Ontario research said.
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The province has repeatedly defended its reopening plan in the face of Ontario’s sixth COVID-19 wave.
“It’s not unanticipated that this would happen,” the Minister of Health, Christine Elliott, said on April 5.
“When you’re opening up the province to the degree that we have, and with the transmissibility of this virus, we expected to see the numbers increase,” she continued.
“But we have over 3,100 extra beds. We have the capacity. We also have a highly vaccinated population. We have the antivirals ready as well. So we have the measures that we need to deal with this.”
The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment for this story in time for publication.
Lower vaccine uptake in children under the age of 12 (children under five cannot be vaccinated against COVID-19) also means the outcome from this wave could be severe, Public Health Ontario said.
The research said that “the number of children with severe diseases is likely to increase.”
The research emphasized the role masks could still play in blunting Ontario’s sixth COVID-19 wave.
“Masking with high-quality masks (i.e., good fit and filtration) at a population level is a public health measure that can be effective at reducing transmission, while enabling community settings and activities to continue functioning,” it said.
The paper suggested the re-implementation of mandatory masking would be one option.
“A new SARS-CoV-2 (variant of concern) could emerge and drastically change the course of the pandemic,” the document said.