Cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in most Ontario public health units and could begin to place an increased burden on hospitals in the coming weeks and months, infectious disease experts warned Friday.
The latest briefing from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table shows that transmission of the virus is growing in 26 of the province’s 34 public health units. It comes as the Ministry of Health reported 598 new cases and four more deaths linked to the illness this morning.
Test positivity rates are also rising in a number of public health units, particularly those in southwestern Ontario, the science table said.
The main elements driving increased transmission are colder weather keeping people indoors, the lifting of capacity limits in many settings such stadiums, restaurants and gyms — which are all accepting proof of vaccination — and more indoor gatherings in general.
While public health experts have called the recent rise in cases concerning, it has not yet been accompanied by an increase in the number of patients being treated for COVID-related illnesses in the province’s intensive care units. As of Thursday evening, there were 130 people with COVID in ICUs, two fewer than the day before.
Vaccines continue to provide significant protection against COVID-19, the science table said. Unvaccinated Ontarians have a six-fold higher risk of developing a symptomatic case, an 11-fold higher risk of ending up in hospital due to those symptoms and a 26-fold higher chance of being admitted to intensive care, the table added.
As cases continue to rise in much of the province, so too will the burden on hospitals, the science table cautioned. The most likely scenario presented in the updated modelling is that ICU occupancy could reach roughly 200 by the end of the December.
In a statement, the Ministry of Health said that the projections vindicate the government’s “cautious and gradual plan for reopening,” which includes its recent decision to pause further lifting of capacity limits for remaining high-risk settings. Night clubs, strip clubs, sex clubs and bathhouses were due to lose capacity limits next week but those limits will now be in place for at least another month.
“While certain public health trends have increased slightly, an increase in cases was always expected as more people move indoors and as the province safely and gradually lifted certain measures,” said ministry spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene in an email.
“Ontario’s hospital and intensive care capacity remains stable and the province continues to report one of the lowest rates of active cases in the country.”
Hilkene went on to say that the winter months ahead will require “continued vigilance” and that’s why the province continues to maintain “strong public health measures such as indoor masking and proof of vaccination requirements to access higher-risk settings.”
The government announced in October that it plans, at least for now, to eliminate vaccination requirements as early as Jan. 17, 2022 and all masking requirements by March, moves that widely criticized by many public health experts and physicians.