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Registered nurse Tenzin Dhasel puts on personal protective equipment in the intensive care unit at Humber River Hospital in Toronto.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

While the current wave of COVID-19 appears to have peaked, Ontario’s reopening this week will increase spread and put already stressed hospitals under further pressure, according to new projections from the province’s science panel. The provincial government, however, says it has anticipated the increases and that its health system can handle the load.

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table released modelling on Tuesday predicting that Monday’s lifting of restrictions – which includes allowing restaurants to reopen with 50 per-cent capacity – will cause more infections. But the science table, a large group of scientists drawn from the province’s top hospitals and universities, warns that the size of the coming rebound is unclear.

The projections suggest that COVID-19 hospitalizations, hovering around 3,000 now, could climb to nearly 6,000 in March in the worst-case scenario. In the best-case scenario, they slowly sink to around 2,000 patients by then – a more manageable number but still a continuing burden on already-strained hospitals.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford defended his reopening plan and said his government has hired thousands of health care workers and funded 3,100 more hospital beds to deal with the pandemic.

“We’re ready to move forward,” Mr. Ford said, noting that hospitals remained under pressure. “But we have to do it cautiously. We can’t just jump into it and just open everything up tomorrow. We have to be very, very cautious.”

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Front-line health care workers have for months complained of staff shortages and burnout amid the prolonged crisis. But Mr. Ford’s Health Minister, Christine Elliott, said the province’s health system can handle any coming surge. She pointed out that the province is starting to resume a limited of non-urgent surgeries and procedures, such as cancer screenings, that were postponed as the wave of COVID-19 patients swept hospitals last month.

“Even if the numbers do go up slightly as we start opening up, the modelling does indicate that we will still have the capacity to deal with that increase,” Ms. Elliott said. “… So we feel we are ready for whatever will happen as we move forward.”

The science table also points to data gleaned from the monitoring of sewage for traces of COVID-19 across the province that shows that the current wave driven by the virus’s more transmissible Omicron variant likely peaked around Jan. 11. But the numbers suggest that anywhere from 1.4 million to four million Ontarians – out of a population of 14.6 million – may have contracted the virus since the beginning of December.

“Public health measures helped control this phase,” the science table says in a series of slides posted on its website. “Relaxation of these measures will increase the spread of COVID-19. The size of any resurgence is difficult to predict and will depend on vaccination, the spread of Omicron, and changes in behaviour (e.g., mobility, masking).”

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A ventilated and proned unvaccinated nurse in the intensive care unit lays on her bed at the Humber River Hospital.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In addition to projections showing large numbers of patients potentially still hospitalized in March, the science table says that in the worst-case scenario, the number of patients in intensive care could shoot up as high as 900 – a level last seen in May at the height of the pandemic. In the best-case scenario, the tally would slowly sink to around 300, compared to below 600 in recent days.

The uncertainty, the science table says, is partly owing to Ontario’s restrictions on testing, which have made it difficult to track the true spread of Omicron. The projections also depend on vaccination rates, which while high, have been slowing. But crucially, the models depend on just how many Ontarians have already contracted Omicron and therefore have immunity.

The worst-case scenario in Tuesday’s modelling assumes that only two million Ontarians have had recent infections. The best-case scenario assumes the real number is three million.

Peter Juni, the scientific director of the science table, said increases in infections and hospitalizations were always expected with the reopening and students returning to classes two weeks ago. But too steep an increase in the coming days could mean that Ontario needs to put off its next round of lifting restrictions set for Feb. 21.

“We just need to pay really close attention to the next two weeks,” Dr. Juni said in an interview. " Probably now we will see a trough, the bottom of the valley, relatively soon, in the next few days. … And then the big thing will be how much we will go up again.”

While deaths – with 63 reported Tuesday – remain high and hospitalizations, at 3,091, are up only slightly, the number of patients in intensive care units fell by 15 to 568 people on Tuesday, according to the Ministry of Health. With very limited testing, the province is reporting 2,622 new cases, a steady drop from more than 5,300 a week ago. The proportion of tests coming back positive was 16.2 per cent, up slightly from the past few days but down from a week earlier.

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