The top public health officials in Toronto and Peel Region are asking the province to keep strict lockdowns in place in their communities for at least another two weeks amid concerns that new COVID-19 variants could soon trigger an “exponential growth” in case counts.

The Ford government had planned to lift the stay-at-home order in Toronto, York Region, Peel Region and North Bay Parry Sound as of Tuesday, completing the transition of all 34 public health units back to its colour-coded framework for COVID-19 restrictions.

But in a letter dated Feb. 13 and released publicly on Wednesday Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa and Peel Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh asked their provincial counterpart to keep Toronto and Peel out of the framework until at least March 9.

That would mean that most businesses would remain closed, including non-essential retail establishments that are permitted to operate in even the strictest category of the province’s framework.

“The variants of concern mean we face a deceptively dangerous situation,” De Villa told reporters during a briefing at city hall. “Right now the case counts don’t look so bad and they don’t sound bad but today’s variant count is the tip of an iceberg. By the time the confirmed case counts are big enough to shock it will be too late to do anything; we will be in a third wave as bad as anything we have been through thus far.”

There are currently 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants in Toronto but de Villa said that there are "about five times" that many - another 283 cases - that have screened positive for variants of concern and are undergoing further testing.

Meanwhile, over the last week in Peel Region the number of lab-confirmed cases involving a variant of concern have increase from 5 to 45 and at one point every resident in a Mississauga condominium was offered a COVID-19 test after five cases of the variant that originated in South Africa were discovered.

Against this backdrop, officials have been expressing increasing concerns over the potential for a third wave of the pandemic.

The head of Ontario’s science table has even warned that the B.1.1.7 variant, which is believed to be at least 50 per cent more infectious, is likely to become the dominant COVID-19 strain in Ontario as soon March.

He has said that if restrictions are lifted too soon with the variant circulating, Ontario could see 5,000 to 6,000 cases by the end of March in “the most likely scenario” and up to 18,000 daily cases in a worst case scenario.

“As a public health physician I have never been as concerned about the threat of COVID-19 to your health as I am now. Not at any other point in the pandemic. I am obligated to make that clear,” De Villa said on Wednesday. “Today it is better to delay reopening and stage reopening gradually when we have certainty that the time is right. It is better to wait until we know more than to put everyone through the yo-yo of opening closing, reopening, and closing again and again.”

Stay-at-home order would also remain in effect

In their letter, de Villla and Loh asked that Toronto and Peel continue to face the same restrictions that were put in place as part of a provincewide lockdown on Dec. 26 and that the stay-at-home order introduced on Jan. 14 also remain in effect until at least March 9.

In arguing for the pause on reopening, they pointed out that neither Peel nor Toronto have seen a “consistent downward trend of hospitalizations” despite a decline in cases and continue to “see pressures on acute care bed capacity and staffing.”

They also said that new variants of concern are becoming increasingly prevalent and are “now present in most congregate settings in Toronto.”

“While there is a downward trend in many key indicators warning lights are flashing too,” de Villa said during Wednesday’s briefing.” Exponential growth is what Toronto faces. Suddenly case counts leap and the opportunity to prevent it is done.”

Ford has promised to listen to local officials

Premier Doug Ford’s office released a statement on Wednesday afternoon following the public pleas by de Villa and Loh.

It indicated that Ford “will be taking a very cautious approach” to reopening and that “any decision will be made in consultation with the local medical officers of health” but did not provide any further clarity on what might happen on Monday.

During Question Period at Queen’s Park earlier on Wednesday, Ford said that “the local medical officer of health can put out a Section 22 (order) and put a stop to any opening” whenever they choose to.

But in their letter, De Villa and Loh say that they believe “the public will be far less accepting of a return to a third lockdown than the gradual and progressive lifting of the existing one.”

“I have repeatedly said that our priority must be reopening of the schools and keeping them open safely. This just began in Toronto this week and we should focus on this in the short-term while we monitor the broader impact of the variants,” Mayor John Tory said during Wednesday’s briefing. “I know extending the lockdown will cause continuing hurt for many businesses but I also know that they have followed the public health advice throughout this pandemic so that we can keep as many people healthy as possible so that we can save as many lives as we possibly can. We absolutely do not want to find ourselves opening up, even slightly, and then having to close down again just a few weeks from now.”

While Toronto and Peel officials are pushing to keep restrictions in place for another two weeks, York Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Karim Kurji has called for his community to be placed in the red zone of the province’s framework as of Monday.

That would allow the vast majority of businesses to reopen but with strict capacity limits.

In an interview with CP24 on Wednesday afternoon, Kuriji said that public health officials in the region are keeping a “very close eye” on the 62 active variant cases that have been confirmed in York and believe the “explosive growth” that has been predicted hasn’t started yet.

“We are keeping such a close eye on them that we feel comfortable moving into the red zone given our aggressive case and contact management, given the steps being taken at international borders and given the fact we are trusting the public to be a little more vigilant,” he said.