The more contagious U.K. variant of COVID-19 is expected to become the “dominant” strain hitting Ontario in March, making it hard to predict when more businesses and schools can reopen despite a recent decline in case levels, public health officials say.
The stay-at-home order issued by Premier Doug Ford earlier this month and the Dec. 26 lockdown have reduced infection levels by half from their peaks, but “we’re nowhere in the clear yet,” Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, chair of the science table advising the government, warned Thursday.
He called the U.K. variant now in several communities, including the GTA and Barrie, “a significant threat to control of the pandemic” and cited “significant concerns it is more lethal,” urging Ontarians to follow standard precautions and avoid crowded and confined spaces.
“There’s a high chance it’s moving quite aggressively in some areas and leading to community-wide spread,” chief medical officer Dr. David Williams said as daily cases of COVID-19 rose to 2,093, an unexpected uptick fuelled by a sharp increase of 700 infections in Toronto.
However, experience in European countries battling variants suggests keeping public health restrictions in place will help daily case numbers stay on a downward track, allowing classroom learning to resume with precautions such as expanded testing, Brown told a briefing where he presented the latest computer modelling on the trajectory of COVID-19.
“If we are careful, and if we watch the data carefully, it should be possible to control the spread of the disease with schools open,” added Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
“It will be a challenging decision for the province’s leaders. And it may require different approaches in different regions.”
Schools in the GTA and other parts of southern Ontario are slated to resume in-class learning Feb. 10 but Brown and Williams said community transmission of the virus must be further reduced to make sure reopenings can be sustained.
“We don’t want schools opening and then closing,” Williams added, saying improved measures to protect teachers and students “are being worked on now.”
He did not set out any specific criteria for reopenings and said more data is needed over the next week. Critics have repeatedly called for smaller class sizes and better ventilation.
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While the U.K. variant is about 56 per cent more contagious than standard COVID-19 strains in Britain, it appears to be “at least” 30 per cent more transmissible here, according to the latest data.
With vaccines in short supply, the strain caused case levels in Britain to triple last year, put further pressure on hospital intensive care units and lead to more infections and deaths in nursing homes already hard hit in the second wave.
The variant, and others from Brazil and South Africa not yet detected in Ontario, “give us less room to relax and less room for error,” said Brown.
When it comes to reopening businesses, “we want to be very cautious that we don’t do it too fast,” added Williams, who will meet with other public health experts, doctors and epidemiologists in the next two weeks to develop advice to Ford and his cabinet.
Brown said more new variants are likely to emerge. Ontario has identified more than 130 cases involving “variants of concern,” including about 100 in the Barrie area where the Roberta Place nursing home was devastated by infections and deaths believed to be the U.K. variant.
Testing for variants is being stepped up amid concerns cases have gone undetected.
The modelling forecasts that keeping the existing restrictions in place could see daily new infections in the range of 1,000 to 2,000 daily and reduce the number of patients in intensive care units from around 400 recently to between 150 and 300 by the end of February, making it possible for hospitals to resume more non-emergency surgeries.
While new infections are slowing in nursing homes, death rates have continued to increase with 215 residents passing away from COVID-19 in the last seven days. At least 3,462 of Ontario’s 6,014 deaths from the virus have been among long-term-care residents.
Almost 600 nursing-home residents have died this year, along with three staff members.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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