There are growing calls from many to speed up Ontario’s economic reopening plan as COVID-19 vaccinations ramp up and daily infection numbers remain low.
But some experts are cautioning that the province may not be entirely out of the woods yet.
Health experts are pointing to the U.K. as an example of why it may be best to tread lightly when it comes to loosening restrictions. The highly contagious Delta variant is fueling a rise in cases in Britain and forcing the country to delay their own reopening plan.
Daily case numbers in the U.K. dropped to lows not seen since last summer in early May – new infections have been steadily on the rise since mid-May.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed earlier this week that the next round of relaxed restrictions would be delayed by four weeks as a result of the spread of Delta.
Just over 60 per cent of U.K. residents have one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly half are fully vaccinated.
Experts believe Canada is about a month behind the U.K. when it comes to the emergence of the Delta variant.
Dr. Peter Juni, who sits on Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, tells the Toronto Star the next two weeks will be crucial in determining how well the province will fare against the highly transmissible strain.
“The virus has upped its game massively,” Juni told the Star. “The future is in our hands. We can still mess this up.”
Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa says the city continues to monitor the spread of Delta closely.
“At a very high level we are certainly seeing Delta variant here in the city,” said De Villa. “At last count, I think it was roughly a third of the samples that did come back as Delta variant.”
The Science Table estimates the variant now makes up approximately half of the COVID-19 cases in the province.
Ontario’s Science Table COVID-19 dashboard
Waterloo Region in southwestern Ontario reported the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the province for the first time on Wednesday and local health officials believe the Delta variant is likely behind the recent surge in infections.
The region reported 71 new infections, surpassing the daily infections of hotspots and areas with much higher populations like Toronto and Peel Region.
“We are concerned that our trends are not improving as they are in other communities in Ontario because of the Delta variant,” Dr. Julie Emili, associate medical officer of health, said in a community presentation Friday.
The region, which includes the cities of Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge, reported 494 active cases as of Wednesday afternoon. Local officials have also noted an increase in hospitalizations and ICU admissions.
We need help to put this fire out IMMEDIATELY,” NDP legislator Catherine Fife, who represents Waterloo, wrote on Twitter Wednesday.
The variant has also been linked to a dramatic spike in cases in the northeastern Porcupine Health Unit, the only region that didn’t lift health restrictions on businesses and gatherings last week as it battles the surge.
When asked about the chances of Ontario moving into Step 2 of the reopening plan ahead of schedule, Premier Doug Ford has been non-committal.
“We will sit down with the health table,” said Ford. “The light is growing brighter, as we say, at the end of the tunnel. “We just have to hit that 20 per cent [of fully vaccinated adults] and we’re going to be good.”
While Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown expressed a desire for the province to move to Step 2 ahead of schedule, Peel Region’s top doctor continues to urge caution.
Dr. Lawrence Loh has spoken out over the severity of the Delta variant while pressing the Ford government to allocate more second doses to high-risk communities.
Before Step 2 of the reopening plan can begin, 70 per cent of Ontario adults need to have received at least one dose, and 20 per cent need to have received both doses. The province has already surpassed the first vaccination threshold and is on pace to reach 80 per cent by early July.
Based on current daily vaccinations, Ontario is on pace to meet the 20 per cent fully vaccinated threshold by the week of June 21.
Hair salon owners are calling on the province to allow their industry to reopen, saying their establishments are safe and employ ample measures to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
The province entered the first phase of a three-step reopening plan last Friday. Non-essential retailers were able to reopen, patio dining resumed, and outdoor fitness classes restarted, among other things.
Hair salons and other personal care services, however, are only slated to open in Step 2, which won’t kick in until next month.
With files from the Canadian Press