Ontario is likely in another wave of COVID-19 driven by the highly infectious BA.5 Omicron subvariant of the virus, Ontario’s expert pandemic advisers say.
The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table group’s findings shared on Twitter Wednesday note that wastewater signals, test positivity and hospitalizations from the virus are rising, while regions across the province are reporting exponential growth in infections.
Dr. Fahad Razak, scientific director of the group, said it’s likely that the wave will peak sometime in the summer. Evidence doesn’t suggest that BA.5 variant causes more severe illness, but Razak said the variant’s highly infectious nature could still do damage through the sheer number of people who catch it.
“Based on everything we’re seeing, the BA.5 wave, we don’t expect it to be that large,” he said. “But there are important steps that can be taken to protect ourselves and to minimize this effect as much as possible.”
He suggested that people meet outdoors when possible and wear masks in crowded public spaces. He also stressed that people should get vaccinated with their third shots if eligible.
“We’re at the start of a wave. There’s no better time than now to go out and get that third dose, you’ll start to get protection within days of receiving the vaccine,” he said.
As for fourth doses, Razak said those currently eligible — people aged 60 and older, Indigenous adults and long-term care and retirement home residents — should take the vaccine now, but that he generally agrees with the federal recommendations that a broader fourth-dose rollout wait for the fall.
“For the majority of the population, the third-dose gap is the biggest gap right now,” he said.
The BA.5 variant appears to be more immune-evasive, Razak said, meaning people who were recently infected can catch the virus again soon after.
Its transmissibility could also mean that many people — including those who are highly vulnerable to the virus — could become infected and experience severe outcomes, including death. And even a “mild” infection could cause weeks of disruption, Razak said, potentially forcing people to take time off work or school.
“As we shift to this mentality of trying to get through the worst of the virus, for living as much as we can with the virus, part of that is not allowing the virus to disrupt your daily life, and getting infected is very disruptive, even if you don’t end up in hospital,” he said.
Current strain on the province’s health system, contending with widespread staff shortages, means that even a relatively small rise in hospitalizations could be problematic, Razak noted.
“We need to be worried about the hospital sector,” Razak said. “The level of strain in it is really unprecedented. It doesn’t have the reserve that it had, the ability to rally that it did earlier in the pandemic.”
That’s also a concern for York Region emergency physician Dr. Steven Flindall, who recently shared an open letter from health-care workers and advocates calling for the return of mandatory masking in health-care settings after the province dropped the measure last month.
While most hospitals have decided to keep mandatory masking in place, Flindall said he has encountered resistance from patients and visitors who don’t want to wear them, and also shared concern about lack of mandatory masking in primary physicians’ offices.
The matter is even more urgent given the rising BA.5 wave, Flindall argued. He pointed to the recent ER closure in a Perth, Ont., hospital that was partly driven by a COVID-19 outbreak as a cautionary tale for the rest of the province.
“If you don’t do everything you can to protect at least the workers in the system, you’re going to have a health-care system on its knees in very short order, and I think we’re starting to see the cracks come out already,” he said in an interview.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Health pointed to vaccinations and antivirals and recent health-care spending on hiring and training as part of Ontario’s virus management.
“We will continue working with our hospital and health-care partners to make sure we have the capacity and resources in place to meet the challenges that might lie ahead,” Bill Campbell said.