As Ontario lifts mandatory masking in schools and most indoor public spaces on Monday, new COVID-19 modeling suggests cases and hospitalizations could rise into May but not to dangerous levels.
The prediction from the province’s volunteer science table advising Premier Doug Ford is in line with the expectations of chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore, who has said infections are bound to increase as more public health measures ease and advised Ontarians to wear masks voluntarily in higher -risk indoor settings.
Moore warns new cases are about 10 times higher than confirmed by limited PCR testing of health-care workers and other eligible individuals — a number the science table estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 people daily in modeling released Thursday.
But thanks to a “wall of immunity” from high vaccination levels and the estimated three million to 4.5 million Ontarians who have caught the Omicron variant since Dec. 1, any rise in cases “will not be as steep” as was seen in January, said Dr. Peter Jüni, scientific director of the science table.
“It should stay manageable,” he added. “I think we will be OK.”
The science table’s modeling has come under increasing scrutiny for previous dire predictions that have not come to pass, including a forecast in early February that hospitalizations would rebound by late February or early March with the easing of restrictions on indoor dining and capacity limits.
That has not happened and the number of people needing hospital care or critically ill in intensive care units has steadily declined, although the science table says that trend could end as wastewater sampling shows more virus circulating, including the BA.2 sub-variant that is 30 per cent more contagious than Omicron. Initially, the science table also maintained Omicron was as virulent as the Delta variant, which was not the case.
“Ontario has done significantly better than the best-case scenario provided in the last modeling and we now have the lowest rate of hospitalizations out of all provinces,” said Alexandra Hilkene, spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott.
“We have continued to maintain capacity to provide care for all patients who need it, and our hospitals can manage any range in these latest projections.”
Hospitalizations could rise to 900 by early May from 644 reported Thursday — well below a high of around 4,000 in January. ICU admissions could increase to 300 from the current 199, the science table forecast.
“We can keep it low by getting vaccinated, wearing good masks while inside and increasing contacts only moderately,” the science table advised on its Twitter account.
Moore and Ford have encouraged Ontarians to continue wearing masks if they feel more comfortable doing so, and to get their shots or boosters if they haven’t done so yet. Moore said he will continue to mask in busy shopping malls and stores, for example.
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