COVID-19 case counts will likely "remain stable" amid an expected increase in social activity, but lifting public health measures prematurely could still "drive a new wave even with strong vaccine coverage," new modelling from Ontario's science table warns.

The projections were released on Friday morning hours ahead of a news conference where Premier Doug Ford outlined a plan to lift all remaining public health restrictions by the end of March, including the vaccine passport system.

The scientists suggest that the "status quo" scenario of keeping all current public health measures in place would see daily case counts dip down below 200 by late November, allowing the province to return to levels of infection similar to what it saw this past summer.

In a more likely scenario in which there is "some increase in contacts between individuals," case counts would still hover around 500 per day through November.

Meanwhile, if there is a "substantial increase in contacts," the modelling suggests that case counts would rise only gradually, taking until mid-November to surpass 600.

To put that in context, by the end of last November, Ontario was regularly reporting more than three times that many cases and many businesses in the GTA had already been ordered to close in an attempt to control the spread of the virus during the second wave of the pandemic.

"COVID-19 cases are declining in most public health units, and hospitalizations and ICU occupancy are stable. The combination of vaccination and continuing public health measures is controlling this pandemic wave," the science table said in a presentation accompanying the latest figures. "Recent experience in other countries and Ontario modelling suggests that continuing some public health measures will let us maintain control of the pandemic as other factors – such as cold weather – increase the risk of a growth in cases, hospitalizations and ICU occupancy."

The Ford government has signalled an intention to eliminate the proof of vaccination requirement for some non-essential settings as early as January and scrap the system altogether in February.

The science table, however, says that all of its modelling scenarios assume some public health measures such as vaccine certificates, mandatory indoor masking in public settings, and symptom screening continue for the foreseeable future.

In an interview with CP24 following the release of the new projections, the scientific director of the science table Dr. Peter Jüni that said that lower than expected mobility this past summer and earlier this fall appears to have helped give Ontario time to get more residents vaccinated, something that is now being reflected in the tone of the modelling.

But he said that we continue to face a "wobbly balance" going forward.

"What we are seeing right now from the impact of Thanksgiving is that case numbers are stagnating. Before, we always went down, so this little change of behaviour already made the decrease in case counts go away, and we'll see where it goes," he said. "We need to be aware that the balance is really wobbly." ​

Cases now declining in most public health units

When the science table last released modelling back on Sept. 28, cases were declining overall but were on the upswing in 19 of Ontario's 34 public health units, as well as among school-aged children.

Since then, the trends have improved, with cases now declining in 26 of Ontario's 34 public health units, including throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

The province has mostly followed the "best-case scenario" outlined in the last projections as a result, with the seven-day rolling average of new lab-confirmed infections now standing at 406, down from 465 last week.

Jüni, however, said that Ontario need only look to countries like Denmark and Finland for a preview of what could happen if it were to lift all remaining public health measures. Both countries have similarly high vaccination rates and have seen a surge in cases in recent weeks.

"What Denmark shows is, even if you have really great cards, you know they have a lot less challenges than we have, if you lift everything, then case numbers go up, and ICU admissions will follow. So we need to keep masking and we need to keep the vaccine certificates in place," Jüni said.

The science table says that test positivity rates are "flattening" overall and now stand at 1.7 per cent after topping three per cent early last month.

Looking ahead, they said that the number of people in the ICU with COVID will remain "stable" at under 200 through the end of November in every scenario.

At the peak of the third wave of the pandemic in April, there were more than 900 COVID patients in the ICU, forcing Ontario to open multiple field hospitals and request support from the Canadian Forces.