COVID-19 cases down across Ontario but U.K. variant a threat, new data indicates

TORONTO — Cases of COVID-19 are decreasing across Ontario but the spread of a more contagious variant presents a “significant threat” to controlling the pandemic, the province’s health advisors said Thursday. 

The variant – first identified in the U.K. – could become the dominant strain of the virus in the province by March and residents must maintain public health measures to guard against it, the advisors said. 

“The variant from the United Kingdom gives us less room to relax, and less room for error,” said Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province’s pandemic science advisory table. 

“It is a significant threat to controlling the pandemic.” 

The province said Thursday that 51 cases of the U.K. variant have been identified in Ontario, with more testing underway to determine if further spread has taken place.

Currently, data indicates Ontario’s COVID-19 cases have been decreasing since the start of a provincial lockdown at the end of December. 

That decline continued after a stay-at-home order was imposed two weeks ago.

The province is now projecting a further decrease that could see Ontario’s case count drop to between 1,000 and 2,000 per day by the end of February. 

The U.K. variant, however, could cause cases to spike again if it precautions aren’t taken, Brown said. The experience of other countries shows that measures like wearing masks and practicing physical distancing can help keep it under control, he said. 

“If we are able to keep our reproduction number down far enough as (it) becomes the dominant variant, we may be able to do things like keep schools open,” he said. 

In the long-term care sector, the latest data indicated that cases have begun to decline but deaths continue to rise, with 215 reported in the last week.

“Interventions to reduce deaths in long-term care will be critical,” Brown said. 

Meanwhile, hospital capacity continues to be strained, with half of the province’s facilities only having one or two free intensive care beds.

“A number of regions are still extremely strained capacity on an intensive care system,” Brown said.

The province’s chief medical officer of health said the province remains in a “precarious” position, but the new data does provide some reason for optimism.

Dr. David Williams said the latest figures show residents are abiding by the provincial lockdown and stay-at-home order.

“We’ve seen all the rates in the regions come down so that’s one reason for optimism,” he said.  

“At the same time … we have to be very careful, especially when we’re dealing with the issue of the variants of concern.”

The president of the Ontario Hospital Association said while the province appears to be flattening the curve, it is not in the clear yet because of the risk posed by the new variants.

Anthony Dale said almost 25 per cent of Ontario’s hospital intensive care unit beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

“At this stage of the pandemic, with health-care workers exhausted and minimal surge capacity left in the system, we must not lose our focus,” Dale said in a statement. 

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the latest modelling data shows that the province needs to bolster safety measures for essential workers, long-term care residents and in schools.

“If we take more action now, the worst could be behind us,” she said in a statement. “We can keep the new variants at bay. But if Doug Ford keeps refusing to invest in protections … then more agony and more tragic loss could still lay ahead.”

Ontario reported 2,093 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 56 more deaths linked to the virus.

The province also said it had previously misinterpreted data on the number of people who received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, leading to an incorrect doubling of that figure in earlier updates.

It said 55,286 people have been fully inoculated against COVID-19.

A total of 317,240 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the province so far.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021. 

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press