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COVID-19 variants expected to be dominant strain in new cases by month's end

Last Updated Feb 11, 2021 at 5:15 pm EST

Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the University of Toronto's Public Health Department, answers questions during a news conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Monday, April 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

While public health measures have helped curb the cases of COVID-19 and led to a decrease in hospitalizations, variants of the coronavirus are spreading and are expected to increase by the end of the month.

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province’s COVID-19 science table, says the latest modelling data shows aggressive vaccination coupled with stay-at-home measures will help the province avoid a third wave and a third lockdown.

Provincial health officials indicate that if public health measures are lifted, cases could rise dramatically depending on the spread of the UK COVID-19 variant, which will soon be the dominant strain in new cases.

Currently, variant strains of the virus account for between five- and 10 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in the province.

“The new variants of concern that spread so much more easily are here and they threaten to undo our progress,” said Brown.

According to the latest provincial data, a total of 239 variants of concern have been recorded to date – 236 of those are the UK variant. The province has also seen cases of the South African variant and recently reported its first case of the Brazilian variant of the virus.

The Ford government’s state of emergency expired on February 9 and the province has begun to ease restrictions to allow businesses to reopen as regions gradually transition back to the colour-coded framework. Stay-at-home orders are expected to remain in effect for Toronto, Peel and York regions until February 22.

Absent any restrictions, the modelling data says Ontario could see almost 2,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day by the end of March with a worst case scenario of almost 18,000 cases a day.

“We are, let me be clear, operating with uncertainty. That is the nature of a new disease with new variants but we need to do as much as we can to reduce that uncertainty. The best bet we can offer from the science this: if we’re able to push the impact of COVID-19 down further by sticking to public health measures and aggressive vaccination we can avoid a third wave and hope for a late spring and summer that is much safer and more open,” said Brown.

The data also reveals that focusing vaccinations on long-term care settings is paying off as the number of daily deaths declines. However, the number of deaths from the second wave is expected to surpass the total number of deaths from the first wave in a matter of days.

While hospitalizations have started to decline, ICU occupancy remains flat. However, an increase in new cases spurred on by the new variants could see ICU numbers climb once again, as early as the second week in March with admissions surpassing 600 by the end of the month.

“In a matter of months, the B.1.1.7. variant went from detection to the dominant strain and as it became the dominant strain cases more than tripled in a month,” Brown said. “At the same time their healthcare system strained with nurses forced to care for four to eight times as many patients as usual and there were daily deaths regularly in excess of 1,000 people. …But there is little room for error in our response to this threat.”