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Dr. David Williams, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer, left to right, Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott attend a news conference at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Wednesday, November 25, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The growth of COVID-19 infections in Ontario appears to be slowing, but the province’s top doctor says the progress is “precarious” and it is too early to consider loosening rules in lockdown zones.

“We are seeing a good direction,” David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said Thursday. “But it’s still precarious. We have to watch that. We are not as bad as we were. But we’re not out of the woods yet in this matter.”

He said the lockdowns and other measures imposed were helping. But he said he would not now advise the government to heed calls from businesses to loosen the lockdown in Toronto and Peel Region, which limits non-essential retailers to curbside pickup or delivery.

“To look at any shifts and changes at the moment … would have to be done very carefully,” Dr. Williams said. “… It’s still too early to make sweeping conclusions on changes at this time.”

No new regions will be going into lockdown for now, he said, but some regions will move into different colour-coded alert stages in moves to be announced on Friday.

Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, presented updated projections on Thursday that showed the rate of infections has slowed since he warned two weeks ago that the province was on track to hit 6,500 cases a day and rival infection rates in hard-hit Europe.

Based on the past few days, Dr. Brown said, the numbers now suggest Ontario as a whole will hover around its current daily count of new infections into the end of December. The province recorded 1,478 new cases on Thursday, with 21 deaths.

However, Dr. Brown warned the situation was “fragile” and that more rapid growth could still return and quickly put the province back on a track for a very high level of 9,000 cases a day. He said the province needs to see cases actually start decreasing before declaring it has made real progress.

While new long-term care cases are also starting to flatten, he said, deaths are still expected to increase. So is the strain on hospitals: The number of intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients, now over the 150 threshold that forces some hospitals to reschedule operations, is projected to stay above 200 through December.

He also stressed that the pandemic was still hitting some regions much harder than others: areas with more crowded, multigenerational households and essential workers who cannot work from home, such as in parts of Peel Region and Toronto. On Thursday, Peel recorded 572 new cases, well ahead of even Toronto’s 356. Peel includes the cities of Mississauga and Brampton.

Both Dr. Brown and Dr. Williams said more needed to be done to help communities that are seeing much higher rates of infections. In addition to increased testing, both suggested that Ontario should consider offering sick pay to workers without paid sick days, to allow them to get tested and isolate without fear of losing a paycheque.

It’s an idea Premier Doug Ford – who has repeatedly said he takes all of Dr. Williams’s advice – has so far dismissed.

“We have to consider everything that might help us and assist in his matter to drive us down in the second wave,” Dr. Williams said.

The top doctor’s term was extended until next September after a vote in the legislature on Thursday, just a day after the Auditor-General released a report saying Dr. Williams had not done enough to steer the province’s pandemic response. The Opposition NDP voted against the extension, saying its had “serious concerns” about the province’s pandemic response.

Meanwhile, the federal government announced on Thursday it would spend $6.5-million for Peel Public Health to establish a voluntary isolation centre for people with COVID-19 who cannot self-isolate at home because of crowded living situations.

The site, which will be located in a hotel in Mississauga, has a capacity of 40 but will be able to expand to 80 in the future, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said. Toronto already has a similar federally funded site. The Mississauga site was already being used as COVID-19 isolation centre for the homeless.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said the site should have been in his city, which has some of the highest positivity rates in the province. In a letter sent to Ms. Hajdu this week, Mr. Brown noted that Brampton has 62 per cent of cases in Peel Region.

“It does not make sense for our residents to have to take a 45-minute bus or car ride into Mississauga,” Mr. Brown wrote.

Peel’s Medical Officer of Health Lawrence Loh said transportation to the site will covered by the funding from Ottawa, and that the health unit is also looking to set up additional sites.

Canadian authorities are assessing COVID-19 vaccine candidates while trials are underway, speeding up any eventual approval for wide use. But science reporter Ivan Semeniuk says it’s likely high-risk people will be prioritized for receiving any vaccine first, with some possibly getting it as early as the first part of 2021.

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