Despite emerging evidence that we’re now in another wave of COVID-19, Ontario is digging in its heels and saying leaders are not prepared to reintroduce mask mandates, at least as of yet.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, says a recent trend of rising hospitalizations driven by the new ‘stealth’ BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, a more-transmissible variant of the original strain of COVID-19, is likely to continue into May.

“It is clear that we are in the sixth wave of this pandemic, driven by the BA.2 variant,” said Moore. “In the last few weeks, we have seen an increase in the per cent positivity, an upward trend in wastewater surveillance and a rise in hospitalizations. These trends are likely to continue for the next several weeks.”

In a new report published by Public Health Ontario, the province says we’re seeing a resurgence of COVID-19 dominated by the new BA.2 variant, and due to its increased transmissibility, severe cases of COVID-19 are expected to increase – which may pose a threat to our healthcare system.

Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which has since been dissolved, had previously estimated that Ontario would peak around 900 hospitalizations by May 1. Now, just shy of the middle of April, Ontario is averaging over 1,100 hospitalizations.

As of April 11, Ontario reported 1,090 hospitalizations with 184 in Intensive Care Units, with 2,401 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. Hospitalizations have seen a 27 per cent week-to-week increase in Ontario.

Dr. Peter Juni, the Science Table’s previous director, has estimated that Ontario is actually seeing between 100,000 and 120,000 cases of COVID-19 each day, and about 5 per cent of Ontario’s population likely currently has a strain of COVID-19 based on wastewater surveillance.

“We have tremendous capacity in the system that’s not being used,” adds Moore. “Yes, we’re seeing a rise in risk. That will probably be for the next six to eight weeks with a rise in transmission. But we have the tools to mitigate it.”

Public Health Ontario’s report adds that the current wave of COVID-19 may lead to further in-person learning disruptions, and Ontario should be prepared to re-introduce mandatory mask mandates in indoor and high-risk settings if necessary.

“While we will not be reinstating a broad mask mandate at this time, we should all be prepared that we may need to resume a requirement for mask wearing in indoor public spaces if a new variant of concern emerges, a threat to our healthcare system, or potentially during the winter months when COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses are likely to circulate again,” explains Dr. Moore.

Ontario’s Health Minister and Deputy Premier, Christine Elliott, has continued to say the province is prepared for another wave of COVID-19, and the uptick in cases was expected by Dr. Moore and the Science Advisory Table.

“We’ve known that as we remove public health measures, that we would have a rise in incidents across Ontario. Hence the reason why we have our three-point plan: continue to wear a mask, continue to get vaccinated, and know if you would be eligible for anti-virals. Those three major platforms will help Ontario through this next wave,” adds Moore.

Medical Officer of Health with the Northwestern Health Unit, Dr. Kit Young Hoon, recommends that residents continue to perform individual risk assessments to determine whether you should wear a mask and practice other COVID-19 prevention measures.

“There are actions that we can take to manage the impact of this wave, even when they may not be legally required. These include a strong recommendation to continue wearing a mask in all public indoor settings,” explains Dr. Moore.

To help fight back against the new wave of COVID-19, Ontario has announced it is re-expanding PCR testing eligibility and eligibility for free of charge COVID-19 anti-viral treatments to high-risk individuals.

High-risk groups are now eligible to be tested and assessed for free anti-viral treatments, including Paxlovid, includes:

- Individuals aged 18 and over who are immunocompromised,
- Individuals aged 70 and over,
- Individuals aged 60 and over with fewer than three vaccine doses,
- Individuals aged 18 and over with fewer than three vaccine doses and at least one risk condition,

Anyone who is eligible for an assessment is also now eligible for a PCR test at any testing centre in Ontario. To get assessed, you’re asked to visit a clinical assessment centre or contact your primary healthcare provider. A positive rapid antigen test can also be used to be considered for treatment.

Ontario notes anti-viral treatments can be prescribed by healthcare providers who determine that a patient is eligible based on their circumstances, even if they don’t belong to one of the above groups.

“The pandemic is certainly not over. We’re now in the sixth wave, and the virus continues to circulate and evolve. As we learn to manage and live with COVID-19, use the tools available to us and this will continue to have a critical impact on our health and the health of those living in our communities,” Moore adds.

Paxlovid was approved by Health Canada in January to treat adults with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are at high-risk of progressing to serious disease, including hospitalization or death. It’s the first COVID-19 therapy that can be taken at home, and is intended to be used within five days of symptoms.

As of April 13, Ontario will release a list of participating pharmacies for individuals with a prescription to access COVID-19 anti-viral treatments. Dr. Moore says the province currently has about 30,000 to 40,000 treatment plans available, and more supplies are expected throughout the year.

Last week, Ontario announced it would be expanding eligibility for fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to individuals aged 60 and over and First Nation, Inuit and Metis individuals and their household members over 18, as long as it’s been five months since your last booster dose.

“Vaccination remains one of the most important tools to protect ourselves and our community against the impact of future waves of COVID-19,” continues Dr. Moore.

“It is critical to stay up to date with your vaccination by receiving all doses recommended. As COVID-19 transmission increases, getting a booster dose is very important. It’s your best defence against severe illness, hospitalization and death. Booster doses save lives,” he said.

Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Theresa Tam, says that preliminary data shows that a fourth dose, or a second booster dose, of the vaccine can offer additional protection against infection, severe illness, hospitalization and death.

Eligible individuals are now able to book their fourth dose appointment through the COVID-19 vaccination portal, by calling the Provincial Vaccine Contact Centre at 1-833-943-3900, through the Northwestern Health Unitparticipating pharmacies and participating primary care settings.