In mid-February, when stay-at-home orders were lifted for most of Ontario, the province described the move as a cautious transition back into a “strengthened” framework for controlling COVID-19. “We saw what happened before, and we don’t want it to happen again,” Premier Doug Ford said at the time.
But three weeks later, there are once again signs of trouble, with many experts fearing a brewing third wave. New variants now account for 42 per cent of all cases, according to estimates by the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, and most public health units are once again seeing upticks in new infections.
“There is still much danger ahead,” said Adalsteinn Brown, science table co-chair and dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “Twenty-four out of our 34 public health units have seen an increase in case rates over the past two weeks.
“This growth sometimes is in very small beginning numbers, and so it does not represent huge numbers yet. But this growth isn’t random; it’s a function of how loosening public health measures, increased mobility and growth in new variants come together.”
Since the fall, the province has hinged its pandemic response on a COVID-19 “framework” that chops up Ontario into different colour-coded zones, each with its own set of pandemic rules: green, yellow, orange, red and grey (lockdown).
Health units are moved along the colour spectrum when they hit certain thresholds of COVID-19 risk, with restrictions intensifying accordingly.
For areas in green, for example, a person can shop, dine at their favourite restaurant, and sit in a movie theatre with 49 other people. For regions in grey (lockdown) on the other end of the spectrum, eateries and cinemas stay shuttered and stores can only operate at reduced capacity.
On Boxing Day, all of Ontario was put under lockdown but cases continued to rise, so a stay-at-home order was imposed on Jan. 14. The curve finally began to flatten.
But within four weeks, the province started relaxing restrictions, despite warnings from the science advisory table that reopening could lead to a third wave, especially with highly transmissible new variants circulating.
On Feb. 10, stay-at-home orders were lifted in three health units, followed by another 27 regions on Feb. 16, the day after Family Day. Ontario was once again transformed into a patchwork of colour-coded restriction zones.
So how well has this colour system worked in recent weeks? To better understand this, the Star grouped Ontario’s 34 public health units according to their restriction level in the second half of February — specifically, between Feb. 16 (when stay-at-home orders were lifted for most of Ontario) and Feb. 28 (after which several regions were reassigned colour categories).
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
During this period, only one health unit — York Region — changed categories, ending stay-at-home orders on Feb. 22 and moving into red.
When looking at daily active case rates for each of the five colour categories, mid- to late February is when the curves began to stall or slowly creep back up.
Drilling down into each colour category, case numbers remain low overall in green. But every health unit in this grouping has seen case rates climb throughout the second half of February — except for the unit of Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington, which experienced declines until March, when rates once again began to rise.
Yellow and Orange regions are a mixed bag but a handful of health units in each category have seen large upward swings in their rates after mid-February.
Regions moved to red on Feb. 16 mostly plateaued in the second half of the month — with the notable exception of Thunder Bay, which had the highest rate of all the red regions when rules were relaxed and has since seen an alarming rise. (Thunder Bay was moved to lockdown on March 1).
Niagara, the only region that moved to grey in February, started seeing an uptick in the second half of the month. Meanwhile, health units that remained under stay-at-home orders in February have plateaued or maintained declines — though hot spots, like Toronto and Peel, lifted stay-at-home orders Monday, and mobility levels will likely start to rise, along with new infections.
Taken together, the coloured curves paint an uneasy picture. At his briefing on Thursday, Brown sounded a note of warning. “Progress has stalled,” he said. “Declines in community cases and test positivity have levelled off; cases are increasing in most public health units as we see mobility rise.
“The variants of concern continue to spread across Ontario and our ability to control the rate of spread will determine whether we return to normal — or we face a third wave of infection.”
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar
Andrew Bailey is a freelance data analyst for the Star
Cameron Tulk is the lead digital designer at the Star, based in Toronto. Reach him via email: [email protected]
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe