From Monday, it will be largely up to you whether or not to wear a mask to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 in Ontario.
The county has lifted its mask on most closed spaces, even as experts warn of an increase in infections and hospitalizations in the coming weeks as a result.
Experts say this increase should be manageable, but how the public responds to the change will matter. And as the province moves to lift all remaining public health measures by the end of April, individuals will have more help with what looks to be the future of COVID-19 in Ontario.
Health experts and officials generally agree that individuals should weigh their risks when deciding whether to wear a mask to reduce their chances of infection and spread of the virus.
To help you decide, here’s a look back at this week’s COVID-19 data and some highlights from the latest science advisory schedule guidance.
Modeling suggests that the number of hospitalizations may increase
Overall case numbers no longer paint a clear picture of the province’s standing when it comes to infection rates due to restricted access to PCR testing.
But new modeling released Thursday by Ontario’s Scientific Advisory Table suggests that — based on a slight increase in wastewater data — we could soon see a spike in hospital admissions and intensive care unit occupancy.
On Monday, Ontario reported 602 people were hospitalized with the virus and 228 patients are in intensive care.
The number of hospitalized cases jumped to 688 the next day. Meanwhile, the number of people in the intensive care unit continued its gradual decline, with 220 people reported on Tuesday. However, not all hospitals provide data over the weekend.
Hospitals continued to decline on a daily basis after that, reaching 615 on Friday. Intensive care unit occupancy also fell below 200 on Thursday for the first time this year – something we haven’t seen since December 21, 2021.
For infections, Ontario has seen a seven-day rolling average of 1,768 this week based on very limited testing. The county reported 1,116 confirmed cases on Monday and 1,076 on Tuesday, but that number rose to over 2,000 cases to 2011 on Wednesday and 2,398 on Thursday.
The actual number of new daily infections is likely to be between 15,000 and 20,000, according to the scientific advisory schedule, with 3.5 million to four million people infected since December 1.
Meanwhile, the test positivity rate ranged from 12 to 13 percent based on the PCR test performed.
The daily number of reported deaths has also decreased with 59 more deaths reported last week.
BA.2 is likely to become dominant this month
A moderate increase in the spread of COVID-19 would likely mean more hospitalizations, but not more than 1,000, scientific advisory schedule projects.
So what could lead to this kind of increase?
According to the advisory schedule, a moderate increase in transmission could occur if people increased their contacts by 40 percent and half of those people were not wearing masks. It can also happen if people increase their contacts by 30 percent and half are without masks, but the more transmissible Omicron BA.2 variant becomes dominant.
With BA.2 expected to become the dominant strain in Ontario this month, the advisory schedule said the government should be prepared to reintroduce mask mandates, reintroduce vaccine certifications and order a third dose if needed, as well as continue to improve ventilation and air filtration in public spaces.
Starting Monday, the county will stop enforcing concealment rules in most indoor spaces — including schools, restaurants, gyms and stores. Individuals and business owners will be able to choose whether or not they will still need to hide.
Meanwhile, the chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore’s weekly briefings ended last week, with the top physician announcing that he would provide updates on the state of the pandemic in Ontario when needed.
The states will remain in place for a while for public transportation, long-term care and retirement homes, shelters, prisons, care and group living environments.
As fall approaches, as immunity wanes from vaccines or from previous infections, the advisory schedule says we may again begin to see some of the increases we’ve seen over the past two years.
Right now, Moore said, everyone should make a personal risk assessment when it comes to wearing masks as the county learns to “live with and deal with COVID-19.”
Moore himself says he will continue to wear masks in places like supermarkets based on his assessment of the risks, and encourages people to continue wearing masks in high-risk places.
With warmer weather, says Dr. Peter Johnny, chair of the scientific advisory schedule, if “we take it slow” and if more people get the full recommended series of vaccinations, the situation in the county should look “relatively well”.
But he warned people to be careful in crowded closed environments.
“If we start seeing all the masks fall off like a T-shirt on the beach, it probably won’t be a good thing.”