Ontario is likely seeing upwards of 100,000 new cases of COVID-19 each day, with roughly five per cent of its residents currently infected, the head of the province’s science table says.
Peter Jüni made the comment in an interview with CP24 on Wednesday afternoon as he discussed a resurgence in COVID activity, which has now seen the number of people hospitalized with the virus increase by 40 per cent week-over-week.
“Based on our wastewater analysis, we just reached the peak we were at in early January and at that time, we were at about 100,000 to 120,000 new cases per day,” he said. “What it basically means is that roughly five per cent of the population of Ontario right now has an active infection.”
Jüni told CP24 last week that the actual number of daily infections in the province was likely 35,000 to 40,000 but since then, positivity rates have spiked and wastewater surveillance has pointed to even higher levels of COVID-19 in the community.
He told CP24 that while the more transmissible BA.2 sub variant is driving some of the resurgence, it is not the primary factor behind the rise in transmission.
He said that behavioural changes, brought about by the lifting of mask mandates for most settings, are, in fact, helping to push caseloads higher than were anticipated when the science table released its last modelling forecast three weeks ago.
At the time, it said that hospitalizations would likely rise to around 800 by May.
But as of Wednesday morning, there were 1,074 people in Ontario hospitals with COVID-19, with the strain on the healthcare system showing no signs of easing anytime soon.
“BA.2 is a bit more transmissible than the original Omicron for sure, but what we are doing, and this is in line with the provincial communication, people just have changed their behaviour dramatically,” Jüni said. “So it doesn’t correspond to what we presumed in our last projections when we assumed a moderate change in behaviour.”
Premier Doug Ford has insisted that the uptick in COVID-19 activity is not unexpected given the lifting of many public health restrictions and has expressed confidence that Ontario’s hospitals will be able to manage the increased patient volumes.
Some epidemiologists have, however, warned that the rapid rise in transmission could put vulnerable individuals at risk and ultimately lead to avoidable deaths.
They have also questioned whether there are sufficient healthcare resources to staff the extra beds the province has claimed it has created.
“Mask up. We are not through this yet. This wave will go high. It doesn’t mean we will see the same amount of hospitalizations necessarily, at least not if we have the same level of infection but remember we are still going up and we are already at the peak we were at last time,” Jüni warned on Wednesday.
UHN infectious diseases specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy said masking should be reinstated in the province.
"I think that removing the mask mandate was a mistake to begin with, because really, not only was it a very visible symbol for everybody to recognize and remind themselves that we were still in the throes of a pandemic. But it really was the simplest tool that was widely accessible to everyone really, regardless of their means or privilege to help protect themselves and those around them from transmitting this virus," he said.
"There has to be a sense of awareness that the simplest tools that are at our disposal need to be exercised."
While the province claims that it can ramp up resources if the need arises, Sharkawy noted that additional beds will not matter if hospitals do not have healthy staff to look after them.
"If these numbers continue to go in the trajectory that they're going for the next few weeks, that could spell real trouble for anybody who needs help in an emergency room," he said.
Sharkawy added that the province should also prioritize third-dose vaccinations as there are still many people who have not received their shots.
"I think it speaks to the importance of making sure that we deliver as many vaccines as possible to as many populations within the community as we can and not allow these variants to continue to spawn in different parts of the world," he said. "Until we do that, this is going to be a recurring theme and we're not going to get to that endemic part of this pandemic that we keep talking about."