Toronto’s top doctor is urging residents to return to wearing masks in public indoor settings amid a rise in COVID-19 transmission in the city.

The Ford government lifted the mask mandate for most settings last month but with wastewater surveillance now pointing to a significant uptick in the level of COVID-19 activity in Ontario, some epidemiologists are calling for its revival.

During a press conference on Monday, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said that she doesn’t believe mandates are appropriate at this point in the pandemic, given that they were always intended to be a “temporary tool” for a time when few other protections existed.

But she said that she is encouraging Torontonians to continue wearing masks as much as possible, especially with COVID circulating in the community to the degree it is right now.

Her comments come on the heels of several other local medical officers of health providing similar advice to residents, including Ottawa’s top doctor.

The head of Ontario’s science table has also estimated that Ontario is likely already seeing somewhere between 30,000 and 35,000 new infections per day and could be trending towards “the worst case scenario” outlined in modelling released just last month.

“We should expect that from time to time we are going to have to adjust our behavior to use all the layers of self protection that we have at our disposal to respond appropriately to the COVID-19 activity in our community. This is one of those times,” de Villa said on Monday. “Wearing a mask is a simple thing we can all do, especially if you are older, have older people in your life, have a serious health condition or simply are indoors with people you do not know.”

The number of people in Ontario hospitals with COVID-19 has risen by more than 30 per cent over the last week and now stands at 857.

Positivity rates on the limited number of PCR tests being carried out in the province are also spiking.

In fact over the last 24 hours, 19 per cent of all samples came back positive, which is the highest that number has reached since the peak of the Omicron-fueled fifth wave of the pandemic on Jan. 18.

Speaking with reporters at an event held to discuss a new vaccination campaign, de Villa said that the uptick in virus activity is not all together unexpected given the lifting of most public health measures.

However, she said that it should serve as an important reminder that “we are not post-pandemic no matter how tired we may be and no matter how much we wish that it were so.”

“I think we have the tools and knowledge available to us at this point to really help see our way through regardless of what decisions are taken by the province,” she said.

Ford says Ontario experiencing ‘little spike’

The science table has said that wastewater surveillance is pointing to a level of infection in the community which is doubling every 10 days.

It says that the rise in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is not as pronounced but still points to a doubling time of every 25 days.

Speaking with reporters during an announcement in Oshawa on Monday, Premier Doug Ford contended that Ontario is seeing a “little spike” in COVID activity.

But he insisted that hospitals are “in good shape” to handle it.

“I'm going to be cautious. But we've also built up hospital capacity to 3,100 acute care beds so we are better prepared,” he said.

While Ford has expressed optimism about the path ahead and has so far resisted calls to revive some public health measures, others have warned about the impact that the rising number of COVID-19 cases could eventually have on hospitals. 

In a message posted to Twitter following Ford’s comments, Dr. Michael Warner, who is the medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital, pointed out that at the peak of the third wave of the pandemic last spring hospitals had to shut down non-emergency surgeries and relocate upwards of 40 patients a day.

He also said that about one-third of all people who ended up in intensive care with COVID ended up dying.

“That's how we were able to manage it,” he said.

The Ford government has said that it plans to lift the mask mandate in the remaining high-risk settings where they are required later this month.

That includes long-term care homes, hospitals, public transit and shelters, among other locations.