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Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, reads his notes as he holds a news conference regarding the lifting of most mask mandates for indoor settings in Ontario, at Queen's Park in Toronto on March 9.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health says the sixth wave of COVID-19 could put 600 people in his province’s intensive-care units – more than triple the current number – and last another month-and-a-half, clouding the coming provincial election campaign.

Kieran Moore made the comments on Monday as he announced plans to distribute more antiviral drugs to combat COVID-19. He had not addressed reporters in a month, despite the sharply rising infections and hospital admissions that have followed Ontario’s move to lift mask rules and public-health restrictions in March.

Despite his grim predictions, Dr. Moore offered few new moves to combat the virus’s march, other than strongly recommending the wearing of masks in public indoor spaces. He dismissed calls for a return to mandatory masking in schools, saying children remained at low risk for severe disease, and that only two children were currently in ICUs.

Dr. Moore said he expected to recommend that the government extend its remaining mask mandates in hospitals, long-term care homes and public transit after the scheduled end date of Apr. 27. He also warned that mask rules could return if a new variant emerges or conditions worsen next winter.

“The pandemic certainly is not over,” Dr. Moore said. “We’re now in the sixth wave and the virus continues to circulate and evolve.”

Dr. Moore said the current wave could last until mid-to-late May. But he said the province’s hospitals could handle the expected rise of patients in ICUs, which at 600 would surpass the worst of January’s wave driven by the virus’s Omicron variant. The timing means Premier Doug Ford and his opposition counterparts could be out campaigning in advance of Ontario’s June 2 election even as hospitals struggle to cope with hundreds more critically ill COVID-19 patients.

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The opposition has criticized the government for failing to make the Chief Medical Officer of Health available to answer questions as the sixth wave has gathered steam. Dr. Moore told reporters at Queen’s Park he had been meeting with local medical officers of health, relying on them to spread information about the pandemic. Liberal MPP John Fraser accused the government of “gagging” Dr. Moore.

Dr. Moore’s refusal to entertain a return to mask mandates in schools appears to fly in the face of new advice from Public Health Ontario. The government agency released a report on Friday saying that masking would be “effective at reducing transmission” and would avoid the potential for more school shutdowns. It also warns that the current wave, driven by a more transmissible variant known as BA.2, could mean more severe cases and potentially pose a threat to the health system. And it concludes that the “removal of health measures” along with limited vaccine eligibility and uptake in children would mean more children with severe disease.

The new move to allow more lab-confirmed polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests and more access to antiviral drugs such as Paxlovid was made after criticism that Ontario and other provinces have been sitting on more than 90 per cent of the drugs provided by the federal government. In Ontario, as of last week, just 1 per cent of its available 40,000 courses of the drug Paxlovid have been dispensed to individuals.

Dr. Moore said Monday that effective immediately, a number of high risk groups would be eligible both for PCR testing, which has been restricted, and antiviral treatments such as Paxlovid. The groups include immunocompromised people at the age of 18 and up, all people 70 and over, people 60 and over with fewer than three vaccine doses, and those 18 and up with fewer than three doses and added risk factors, such as a chronic medical condition.

The drugs will also be available for free at more pharmacies, the government announced. For the drug to fend off the worst effects of the virus, it must be started within five days of the onset of symptoms, making it vital for quick testing to confirm a patient has contracted COVID-19.

On Monday, the province reported three new COVID-19 deaths, with 1,090 people in hospital (up by 113 from the day before) and 184 people in intensive care (up by 11 from the day before). Ontario’s strictly limited testing means its verified number of new cases is largely meaningless as a measure of the virus’s spread.

But Peter Juni, scientific director of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said last week that waste water sampling across the province suggests COVID-19 infections have surpassed the total in January’s previous Omicron wave – at more than 100,000 new cases a day.

Mr. Ford, speaking at a campaign-style event to mark the start of tunnelling for the western extension of Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown light-rail line on Monday, urged people to use “common sense” and wear masks in crowded places.

Ontario Hospital Association president and chief executive officer Anthony Dale said he’s concerned about the acceleration of hospital admissions across the province and the impact this wave is having on health care workers.

If admissions were to reach the same peak as in January, when there were more than 4,000 patients, Mr. Dale said it would be highly disruptive to the health care system as hospitals haven’t yet fully recovered from that wave and many health care workers are booking off sick with COVID-19.

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