TORONTO — COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions will likely increase again following this week’s reopening, Ontario’s expert science advisers said Tuesday in new modelling that shows “prolonged” pressure on the health system.

The current wave appears to have plateaued or could be in decline, but the size of a resurgence is difficult to predict because it will depend on factors such as vaccination and masking, and the spread of the Omicron variant, the experts said. 

The spread of the virus is challenging to track because of limits on who can access PCR testing, but Ontario’s COVID-19 wastewater signal suggests cases peaked around Jan. 11, and there may have been between 1.5 million and four million infections since Dec. 1.

“Public health measures helped control this phase,” the experts say in the modelling. “Relaxation of these measures will increase the spread of COVID-19.”

Premier Doug Ford said investments Ontario has been making will ensure there is enough hospital capacity.

“So are we ready? Yeah, we’re ready. We’re ready to move forward, but we have to do it cautiously,” he said Tuesday. 

“It was (Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran) Moore that said we’ve got to learn to live with it. And I agree with him.” 

Restaurant dining rooms, gyms and cinemas were allowed to resume operations at half capacity on Monday, while some surgeries that were paused to preserve health system capacity were also allowed to restart and social gathering limits increased to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. 

Ontario reported 3,091 people in hospital Tuesday with COVID-19 and 568 people in intensive care. That was down from 4,008 hospitalizations and 594 in ICU a week ago.

The province also reported 63 more COVID-19 deaths.

The expert modelling shows a wide range of scenarios for hospital admissions going forward, up to nearly 6,000 admissions by mid-March in the worst-case scenario.

But the scenarios depend partly on how many people in the community have immunity from recent Omicron infections, a number that is unknown because most people can’t access PCR tests. 

The worst-case scenario assumes two million people had a recent infection, which could see hospitalizations rise well past the latest peak. If the number of Ontarians infected with Omicron is actually three million, the modelling suggests hospitalizations could continue falling in the immediate term, then rise only slightly a few weeks after reopening to under 2,500.

Projections for intensive care unit occupancy also show a range of possibilities, but while the experts say there is considerable uncertainty about the levels, the pressure on ICUs is expected to be prolonged.

Vaccination is highly effective against hospitalization and ICU admission, the experts said, as unvaccinated people are 12 times more likely to end up in ICU than people with two or three doses. 

Boosters are about 60 per cent effective against symptomatic Omicron infections, and more than 90 per cent effective against hospitalization or death.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce also announced Tuesday that 3.6 million more rapid antigen tests are being sent to schools for students and staff.

Eight schools were listed Tuesday as being closed due to COVID-19 operational reasons, and 156 schools reported staff and student absence rates of 30 per cent or more.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2022. 

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press



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