Ontario faces a critical few weeks as it monitors the spread of more-contagious variants of COVID-19, the province’s pandemic science advisers warned Thursday, with the government considering a new lockdown on hard-hit Thunder Bay.
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, said he would be looking at the latest data and talking to Thunder Bay’s local health officer Thursday evening about whether to recommend new restrictions for the area at a cabinet meeting set for Friday.
“There is great concern. … We want to give them all the help that we can,” Dr. Williams said.
In the face of rapidly rising cases, students in Thunder Bay were set to temporarily move to remote learning next week. In a letter sent to local school boards on Thursday, Medical Officer of Health Janet DeMille recommended the move to contain the virus’s spread. Trustees at Lakehead Public Schools had asked the health unit and province earlier this week to consider moving all its schools to virtual learning for two weeks.
Thunder Bay now has one of the highest infections rates of any region in the province, at 105 weekly cases per 100,000 people. The Thunder Bay District Health Unit has reported more than 250 cases since last Friday and more than 900 cases so far this year – double the total number in all of 2020. Dr. DeMille said about half the active cases are among the homeless population.
The city is calling for more help from both the province and Ottawa. City manager Norm Gale said Thunder Bay’s COVID-19 isolation shelter is now housing 110 people in its 86 rooms. It is managing with staff from a collective of community organizations, he said, but needs more medical and support staff.
Thunder Bay, which declared its second state of emergency of the pandemic in early February, has seen outbreaks at two correctional facilities, schools and long-term care homes – in addition to spread among the homeless.
Mayor Bill Mauro told The Globe and Mail Thursday he would be surprised if the province decided against moving the health district back into the “grey” or lockdown zone, its toughest level of restrictions. He also said requesting military assistance from the federal government is an option but only as a last resort.
At Queen’s Park, Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, head of the University of Toronto’s school of public health, released updated projections on Thursday that show the province as a whole could see cases either level off or even continue to slowly drop – unless the new more-contagious variants start spreading as quickly as they have in other countries.
In a worst-case scenario if the new variants take hold, daily infections could shoot upward again toward the 4,000 mark by the end of March, the numbers show. They have plateaued around the 1,000 mark in recent days, but the declines have levelled off and Dr. Brown expects cases and intensive-care admissions to start to rise again soon.
However, he acknowledged that so far, the variants that first emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil have yet to spread as quickly in Ontario as first feared, which he said was because of the province’s public-health restrictions.
But he said it was inevitable that the new forms of the virus would eventually take over, according to data from countries such as Denmark and Switzerland, and in Britain, where exponential growth forced a return to a strict lockdown.
Calling the next few weeks a “minefield,” Dr. Brown said that if Ontario is cautious about any relaxation of restrictions, focuses its vaccinations on the most vulnerable and extinguishes any flare-ups of the virus, the situation could look much better by the summer, when the warmer weather will also see the danger of COVID-19 naturally recede.
“If we are very careful, we can imagine a much better summer,” Dr. Brown said. ”If we let up, we will without doubt ruin the gains that we worked so hard for.”
Cases have also risen in Simcoe-Muskoka. The local Medical Officer of Health, Charles Gardner, warned this week that his area was seeing the variants spread and warned that a return to lockdown could be necessary.
With a report from Caroline Alphonso
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.