If Ontario continues to take strict measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, provincial epidemiologists predict that the number of deaths in Ontario could be reduced to between 3,000 and 15,000 over an estimated two-year lifespan of the virus.

The province released its COVID-19 projections to the public on Friday to give residents a better idea of what Ontario may face in the coming months and years.

The modelling, which is used to inform the provincial government’s response to the pandemic, looks at a broad timeframe of up to two years to account for possible second and third waves of the virus.

According to the province’s modelling, if Ontario had failed to take any measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, the province may have seen as many as 100,000 deaths over the course of two years.

“How this outbreak unfolds is in the hands of the public, in effect in all of our hands,” Dr. Peter Donnelly, president and CEO of Public Health Ontario, said at Friday’s news conference, adding that the numbers are changing constantly and the projections will be adjusted accordingly.

Donnelly said he believes it is possible to reduce the total number of deaths to between 3,000 and 15,000.

“We can change the outcome of the province by staying at home and physically distancing ourselves from others," he added.

Donnelly noted that during a “bad year,” seasonal influenza typically results in about 1,500 deaths in Ontario.

He said the 15,000 figure is “entirely logical and comprehensible” given that COVID-19 has a higher mortality rate, is a completely new virus, there is no antiviral treatment, and there is currently no vaccine.

“These are truly, truly unprecedented times,” Donnelly said. “When people reach for historical precedent here…they actually have to go back to the great influenza pandemic of 1918.”

With the province’s current measures, the modelling projects that Ontario may see as many as 80,000 cases of the virus by April 30, a total which could drop to 12,500 if much tougher action is taken to slow the spread.

Deaths resulting from cases diagnosed through April could total 1,600 if we stay on our current track, experts noted, but the number of deaths could drop to 200 if stronger public health measures are taken now.

To date, the province has officially reported 3,255 cases of the virus, including 1,023 recoveries and 67 deaths, but figures released by local health units suggest that there have been dozens of additional deaths that have not been reported by provincial health officials.

Donnelly noted that the measures that have been taken so far, including physical distancing, closing non-essential businesses, and shuttering schools, have made “a significant difference” but more needs to be done to “cut the top off the curve.”

ICU capacity stretched

The province is also tracking projections related to Ontario’s capacity in intensive care units (ICU) and numbers suggest that as hospitals stand configured today, the province could run out of ICU beds as early as next week.

Even if Ontario hits its best case scenario for case growth through April, the capacity of ICUs across Ontario’s hospitals will be stretched to near their limit around April 18.

Matt Anderson, Ontario Health’s president and CEO, said while the province only has a little more than 400 ICU beds open for COVID-19 cases currently, that number can be quickly expanded to include another 900.

“We do have to look at load balancing,” Anderson said, explaining that patients and equipment may need to be moved around the province to make sure hospitals can meet capacity needs.

Speaking at a news conference at Queen's Park on Friday, Premier Doug Ford commented on the release of the projections, calling them "stark."

"Over 1,600 could be dead by the end of April, that is 50 a day, or that is two people every hour," Ford said.

"These numbers tell a story of Ontario's fight against COVID-19. And the reality is, the early chapters of our story have already been written... What matters is that the ending of our story is still up to us."

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott once again pleaded with people to follow government orders and "please stay home."

"The numbers released today are sobering. Critically, they reveal a disastrous path now avoided, but also serve as a call to arms for greater action. This is no time for complacency. We must remain vigilant," she said.

"These are more than mere numbers. They are our friends and family, they are our neighbours. They are the brave heroes fighting this virus on the frontline of our health care system. They are lives full of potential and bright futures at risk of being taken from us far too soon. Most of all, they are avoidable. But only if each of us each to our part. Only if you stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Dr. David Williams, the province's chief medical officer of health, called the numbers released Friday "real" and "challenging."

"They may be for people a bit scary," he said. "I think the need is to turn that apprehension into determination to do what we need to do."

Federal government not releasing national projections

The decision to publicly release provincial modelling was made by Ford on Thursday, just one day after he suggested that he was reluctant to release the projections due to the “panic” it could cause.

Ford’s decision is at odds with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of Canada’s modelling.

On Friday, Trudeau said the Canadian government is not ready to release their projections at this time.

“We need to make sure we have a better grasp on the accuracy of the data before we put the projections out there,” Trudeau said during his daily news conference in Ottawa on Friday.

Mayor John Tory commended the premier for releasing the numbers on Friday, saying it was “absolutely, positively” the right thing to do.

“We do have the experience in New York to provide us with an actual example of what can happen in a big city if you don't take all the steps that you have to take… I have been encouraging the premier to go in this direction for some time,” Tory said.

“I think people are ready for the information, I think they deserve the information.”

During the city's news conference on Friday afternoon, Toronto's top doctor gave a clearer idea of how many deaths the city could see based on the new projections.

Dr. Eileen de Villa said given that fact that Toronto represents 20 per cent of Ontario's population, the city could see between 600 and 3,000 deaths by the end of the pandemic.

"I am hoping (the modelling) makes it patently clear why it is we are asking (residents) to take on things like physical distancing," she said. "We know that the more we get behind these measures... the sooner we can bring this to an end, the more we can save lives."