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A person opens a pack of disinfectant wipes at the COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Strathcona Paper Centre in Napanee, Ontario, on March 15, 2021.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Ontario has entered a third wave of COVID-19, both the head of the province’s hospital association and its COVID-19 science advisory table said on Monday, citing the rising caseload and the speed of the spread of the virus’s more contagious new variants. But health officials say it remains unclear how severe it will be.

Anthony Dale, the Ontario Hospital Association’s chief executive officer, cited numbers published from the COVID-19 science table on Monday showing the new variants circulating rapidly.

The variants are “essentially out of control and eclipsing the original strain significantly,” Mr. Dale said in an interview. “It seems pretty self-evident that we’re in the early stages of the third wave.”

With intensive care numbers heading up again, he said, the province has lost ground from recent weeks, when cases were dropping.

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According to the figures, 49 per cent of Ontario’s cases on Monday were made up of new variants, largely the new variant first found in Britain, surges of which have forced parts of Europe, most recently Italy, back into lockdowns. (The province’s seven-day average shows the variants making up 36 per cent of cases, a proportion that has been rising.)

The R(t) value, the number epidemiologists use to measure the speed of the virus’s spread, was 1.41 for the new variants, and 1.07 for the original version. This means for every case, more than one other infection results. Health officials say this number needs to be well below one to keep the pandemic in check.

Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, head of the school of public health at the University of Toronto and the head of the province’s COVID-19 science advisory table, agreed some sort of third wave is under way. But he said it remains to be seen whether this third wave is more of small ripple instead of a full-blown surge.

“Yes, we’re at the start of the third wave,” Dr. Brown said. “... The numbers are definitely increasing. The size of the peak that we see, whether this is a small sort of increase or a much longer and higher increase, that’s hard to call.”

He said the future depends on how well public-health measures – including the province’s “emergency brake” it has pledged to use to put regions back into lockdown – are both implemented and adhered to. It will also depend on how quickly the province can continue to vaccinate the most vulnerable. The arrival of warmer weather will help, Dr. Brown said, as people tend to spend more time outdoors where the risk of infection is lower.

Over all, Ontario recorded 1,268 new infections on Monday, but its seven-day average for daily new cases has been rising and is now at 1,350.

There were 349 COVID-19 patients in intensive care in the province, according to Critical Care Services Ontario, a government agency that puts out a daily report for hospitals and health organizations. That is well above the level that officials say strains the health system. Over just 24 hours, 29 new patients were admitted to ICU, the March 14 report says.

Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital opened its doors in February to ease the crunch caused by COVID-19 in other hospitals across the Greater Toronto Area.

As of Monday, 21 of its 35 intensive care beds were filled with COVID-19 patients. Another eight patients were in ICU at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital, its sister hospital, leaving the two caring for the largest number of COVID-19 ICU patients in Ontario.

“The next five to seven days will really tell us where this is going,” said Katharina Plenk, the chief and medical director of Mackenzie Health’s department of medicine. “With COVID, it takes a bit of time for the ICU numbers to climb.”

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, said it was still possible to contain the rising number of infections and the spread of the new variants, if Ontarians follow the public-health rules and vaccinations roll out quickly. But he said the province could now be in the “base” of a third wave.

“One of the people on our team says you can always tell you are in a third wave after it’s over, when it’s up there,” Dr. Williams said. “We’re in this dip and coming up. Is it a slight undulation? Is it a large wave? Is it a moderate wave? To be determined.”

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Eileen de Villa, said it would be premature to say whether the city was entering a third wave, although its case numbers are also rising.

“Certainly this is not the direction that we want to see the numbers going,” Dr. de Villa said Monday. “The risks remain. In some respects, they are higher than ever because of COVID-19 variants.”

Meanwhile, as Ontario launched its long-awaited vaccine booking system on Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the chair of his vaccine task force would be leaving at the end of the month.

Mr. Ford said retired general Rick Hillier would not be extending his term when it expires on March 31. Mr. Hillier was making $20,000 a month in the post, which he took up on Nov. 23.

The Premier told reporters during a press conference in Cobourg that he tried to persuade Mr. Hillier to stay on, joking that he wanted to “put a ball and a chain around his ankle.”

“I tried to get him to renew it, but as he said, ‘Doug, I did the job I came for, and we got everything set up,’ ” Mr. Ford said.

With a report from Oliver Moore

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital.

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