Keep strong public health measures in place when Ontario’s stay-at-home order ends, expert advisers say

As Premier Doug Ford prepares to unveil a plan to start reopening Ontario after an extended stay-at-home order is set to expire on June 2, his science table of advisers recommends keeping strong public health measures in place two weeks longer to “help ensure a good summer.”

Ford is expected to announce that golf, tennis, basketball and other outdoor sports can resume Saturday, in time for the Victoria Day long weekend, as many health experts and opposition parties have been urging with the third wave of COVID-19 easing.

But further easing of restrictions will be firmly tied to vaccination rates and declining cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population as part of a three-phase reopening that will extend into August.

Cabinet ministers approved the plan which was developed with the input of chief medical officer Dr. David Williams, the science table and other health experts.

Ford is not expected to extend the April 17 stay-at-home order past June 2, with Ontario now at COVID-19 hospitalization levels just below the peak of the second wave last winter.

That order and increasing vaccination levels — almost 60 per cent of adults — have improved control of the pandemic with cases and positivity rates declining, science table co-chair Adalsteinn Brown, dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told a briefing Thursday.

“The public health measures, however taxing and frustrating, have helped stop the spread,” he said. “The direction of the pandemic has turned and if we’re careful and cautious, we can maintain this momentum.”

As the Star reported Thursday, the government is poised to begin giving second doses of the AstraZeneca and related Covishield vaccines soon.

Brown said easing public health measures June 2 could lead to an increase in cases, but they should subside throughout the summer, while waiting to June 16 would help maintain a “consistently low level.”

Computer modelling projects 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day by the end of June with a partial reopening of the economy on June 2, and 500 a day if reopening is delayed to June 16.

“The more we can vaccinate and keep spread down … the faster we will see the end to the pandemic,” Brown said. “The outlook is cautiously optimistic but this is not the time to let down our guard … we need to be careful and cautious to avoid a fourth wave.”

Should schools reopen June 2 — something that is not yet decided — new case numbers are forecast to be between 500 and 1,000 daily by the end of next month, Brown said. Reopening schools could increase daily cases six to 11 per cent, a level the science table said “may be manageable.”

Efforts to direct half of all vaccines to hot zones in the first two weeks of May have made good progress in taming the spread of COVID-19 and its highly contagious variants, Brown added.

“The hot-spot strategy is working. Continued efforts are key to a good summer,” stated briefing materials from Brown’s presentation.

The science table had initially recommended a four-week vaccination blitz in hot zones. Health Minister Christine Elliott said local health units are getting enough supplies to designate portions to hot spots.

Brown reiterated the importance of doing things outdoors instead of indoors to limit transmission of the virus and cautioned that variants of concern remain a “wild card” that could lead to an upswing, particularly if they are vaccine-resistant or dramatically more contagious.

“Outdoor activities are much safer than indoor activities,” the briefing notes said. “Basketball with masks is safer … doubles tennis with a mask is safer.”

Ford’s office has said the reopening plan will eschew the previous regional approach that led to people going to areas with fewer restrictions to shop, dine or get their hair cut.

The government was widely criticized for opening too much too soon after the second wave abated last winter, and brought in tougher measures two months ago with the summer increasingly at risk.

New daily cases need to be “well below” 1,000 on a consistent basis to begin easing restrictions, Williams said last week.

“We didn’t get all the way out of the second wave before we went to the third wave,” he acknowledged. “We do not want a fourth wave at all.”

The province reported 27 more deaths Thursday and 2,400 new infections, moving the closely watched seven-day moving average of new cases at 2,131.

That’s down substantially from 3,369 two weeks ago but still a ways from the target set by Williams.

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While hospital and intensive care unit numbers have also been declining, ICUs still have 721 patients with COVID-19, including 39 more critically ill people admitted in the previous 24 hours. Ontario reached a record of 900 intensive care patients just a couple of weeks ago and the units remain swamped.

Those ICU numbers could drop to 500 by the end of June, Brown said.

Just over 7.6 million Ontarians have been given a first COVID-19 shot, with almost 474,000 fully vaccinated from two doses.

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

TORONTO STAR