Ontario probably won’t be ready to leave stay-at-home order on May 20, experts say

Ontario probably won't be ready to leave stay-at-home order on May 20, experts say-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
A closed entrance to a shop in downtown Ottawa April 26, 2021, during an Ontario stay-at-home order. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Ontario is scheduled to break out of its stay-at-home order on May 20, but health experts say we’re likely not going to be ready, especially if we don’t want to end up back in another pandemic wave.

Union representing Ontario’s Ornge paramedics in favour of strike if necessary

The Ontario government strengthened rules three times in April, all as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surged.

Those sweeping changes started less than two months after eastern Ontario came out of the winter shutdown.

“When we saw cases dipping in February, people said ‘Oh, these are the dying embers of the second wave,’ but in fact they were also at the same time the sparks of a third wave,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

That, he said, is why it’s important to be cautious when loosening restrictions.

“This is really a lesson that we need to have learned … from the previous [waves].”

Instead of putting a specific date on when the order should end, he said new COVID-19 cases need to drop significantly to below a rate of 20 per 100,000 people per week, or what used to be Ontario’s yellow zone.

To put that in perspective, Ontario was at 166.6 on May 1 and Ottawa was at 102.9 as of Wednesday. Two weeks ago Ottawa’s number was near 180. It hasn’t been around 20 since late November.

Could parts of eastern Ontario drop that low by May 20? Probably not, according to Evans, but it’s possible some regions — like Leeds, Grenville and Lanark counties, with a rate around 30 — could reach it by the end of the month.

The Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) is currently in the low 50s and the Kingston area is in the mid-40s.

EOHU Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis said earlier this week he would at least like to see the order extended through the May 24 long weekend to avoid holiday gatherings and spread.

Wastewater still high

One of Ottawa’s telling coronavirus signs is in the city’s poop.

The viral load in the city’s wastewater has decreased, but is still two to three times higher than it was last summer and continues to hover around the January peak.

“When we go up, it’s [a quite sharp] increase, but when we come down it’s a very slow trailing off,” said Tyson Graber, a scientist on Ottawa’s coronavirus wastewater monitoring program.

He said this time around it’s “stubborn” and keeps plateauing.

Part of that may be due to more contagious variants of concern, which made up more than three-quarters of the signal as of May 1.

A more normal summer

Besides the variants, another thing this wave and shutdown has had that others haven’t is widespread vaccinations. That will make a big difference if measures stay in place, according to Evans.

If people can hold out a bit longer, he said the start of summer could look much closer to normal.

“The longer the lockdown is in place and stay-at-home orders are in place, then the bigger bang for our buck we’re going to get from vaccination.”

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