Premier Doug Ford says that he is “confident” that the healthcare system can withstand an uptick in COVID-19 transmission as the province continues to push forward with its plans to lift all remaining restrictions amid what could be the beginning of another wave of the pandemic.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch told CP24 on Friday morning that Ontario appears to be “on the cusp of a spring wave” with wastewater surveillance data increasingly pointing to higher levels of virus spread in the community.

But during a press conference in Ottawa, Ford insisted that his government has no plans to reimpose public health measures at this time.

He also suggested that the Ontario government is still committed to lifting the remaining public health restrictions by the end of April, including the mask mandate that remains in place for high-risk settings.

“Let’s talk about that (imposing restrictions), if God forbid that ever happens, at that time. But we are prepared,” he said.

Ford brushed aside suggestions on Friday that his government acted too quickly to lift restrictions, telling reporters that “everyone else in the whole country has taken their masks off” and that Ontario actually lifted its mandate after many other provinces.

As for an expected uptick in COVID transmission, Ford pointed to an increased availability of Pfizer’s Paxlovid pill as one of the things that is giving him confidence in the healthcare system’s ability to manage a rise in transmission.

He said that Ontario has also made investments that will allow it to “ramp up” to 3,000 ICU beds, if need be.

However, in a message posted to Twitter the medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital Dr. Michael Warner cast doubt on those claims.

Currently, Critical Care Services Ontario only lists a “total funded ICU bed capacity” of 2,343 for adults. About 70 per cent of those beds are filled.

“Those of us who actually work in ICUs know that ramping up to 3,000 beds is not only impossible, but a dangerous thing to say,” Warner said. “It provides false reassurance that we have the person power to manage a surge of that size.” 

Modelling had warned of smaller wave

It’s hard to determine how widely COVID-19 is spreading in the community, given the reduced access to government-funded PCR testing.

But positivity rates have been on the rise for several weeks and some epidemiologists, Bogoch included, have suggested that hospitalizations will soon begin to rise again as well.

Meanwhile, modelling released earlier this month did warn that ICU admissions due to COVID-19 could increase by a third to 300 patients by May.

That would still fall well short of the peak reached last spring when more than 900 COVID patients were in the ICU.

“We are seeing an uptick in the wastewater surveillance and, you know, it would come to no one's surprise if days or a week or so later, we're going to see perhaps a bump in the number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 related illness,” Bogoch told CP24 on Friday.

“I think it's fair to say that obviously the pandemic is not over. But it's also fair to say that a tonne of people, the vast majority of people five and up have been vaccinated with at least one and mostly with two doses and of course there is a growing number of people with three doses. We also can't ignore that a significant proportion of the province unfortunately was infected and recovered from an Omicron infection over the last three months as well.”

On Friday, Health Minister Christine Elliott said that Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has always warned that higher levels of virus transmission were likely as the province reopens.

Therefore, she said that the early signs of an uptick in cases “is not surprising to us at all” and is something that the province is prepared for.

“With the rates of immunity we have and the other drugs the anti viral drugs we have right now we are protected,” she said. “Dr. Moore did indicate several times that as we opened Ontario up we would see higher levels in the wastewater surveillance but we are confident that we have the capabilities in our hospitals to be able to take care of anyone who needs a hospital bed or needs to be in intensive care.”

There were 667 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday, up six from yesterday and 54 from one week ago.

The number of people in intensive care fell by four to 161 on Friday.