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A woman wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks along Front Street in Toronto on Nov. 1, 2021. Experts say Ontario needs to look at pivoting its COVID-19 response as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads.Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press

Booster shots are necessary. Booster shots are not enough.

That was our message yesterday in this space. And if you don’t want to take our word for it, consider the analysis of Ontario’s science table, which released its latest pandemic modelling on Thursday.

Their grim conclusions as to the likely direction and scale of the rising wave apply to Canada as a whole, though the curve in some provinces may be a few days behind.

The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Ontario increased by 88 per cent over the past week. The test positivity rate is now 7 per cent; when the science table last modelled the situation, barely a week ago, positivity was a comfortable 1.6 per cent. Omicron is far more contagious than previous variants, which is why, though it arrived just weeks ago, it’s already behind the bulk of Ontario’s latest COVID-19 cases.

The modelling suggests that Ontario is on a path to a lot more infections, as many as 10,000 a day – in fact, the worst-case scenario is that the province could hit that level by next week. Omicron cases are doubling every 2.2 days.

Those rising case numbers are, most importantly, expected to drive a spike in the number of people in intensive care. Best-case scenario, says the science table model, ICU occupancy will rise by about a third over the next two weeks, which is manageable for the health care system. Worst-case scenario? ICU cases will jump more than fourfold, and keep right on jumping, which isn’t manageable.

It’s possible that Canada, and the world, will get lucky. It’s possible that the average Omicron case will be markedly less severe – less likely to put people in hospital – than the average Delta case. There’s some hopeful preliminary evidence from South Africa, though it comes with caveats; there’s also evidence from Denmark strongly suggesting the opposite, namely that the average Omicron case could be slightly more likely to lead to hospitalization.

Given how much more contagious Omicron is, and how many more infections it is already generating under the same circumstances as Delta, the only way hospital admission won’t shoot up soon is if Omicron turns out to be not just slightly less severe than Delta, but far less severe.

We can hope. But hope isn’t a strategy, particularly when mounting evidence is tilting in the other direction.

Or as Steini Brown, the head of the science table, put it: “Though uncertainty exists, waiting for more information will eliminate the opportunity for action.” We can’t just stand around until we see how much more of the house catches on fire.

Starting now, Canada can do a lot to long-term fireproof the house. The provinces and territories need to jump-start a massive, hyper-speed campaign to get booster shots into the roughly 25 million adults who got two shots earlier this year. Given the waning immunity of vaccines versus Omicron that is believed to begin to kick in around the three-month mark, they need third jabs ASAP.

Ontario has taken the lead on this, as well as on working to get millions of rapid tests out to people, so they can see if they’re infectious before they do things like going to work or having dinner with grandparents over the holidays. The rest of the country has to follow.

But that fire-proofing mission – raising protection through boosters – will take time. Ontario is aiming to administer 300,000 booster shots a day, but it’s currently jabbing at less than half that pace. Even if it hits the target today, it would take at least another month to get a booster into every eligible arm.

Which is why we need what the science table describes as a temporary circuit breaker. That means reducing the number of people in the kinds of indoor settings where Omicron can superspread. Yes, this will deliver a painful hit to businesses, from restaurants to NHL hockey games. (On Thursday night, Quebec told the Montreal Canadiens to play to an empty Bell Centre.) But to do otherwise would not be prudent. On this, governments have to catch up with the science and the public. Many white-collar businesses have already done a U-turn, shelving their return-to-office plans.

To simply stay the course, telling people that nothing has changed and effectively encouraging them to get together in big groups, indoors, is risking disaster. No, that’s not quite right: It’s more than risking disaster. Based on available evidence, it could be guaranteeing it.

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