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COVID-19 infections rising again in Ontario, but experts say no need to panic

The seven-day average for infections has risen to 476 from 362 a week ago
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TORONTO — COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in Ontario in a trend experts attribute to cooling temperatures, lifting capacity limits and less stringent precautions among the public.

"We're definitely out of the honeymoon phase and back in the fourth wave," Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director for Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said Monday.

The seven-day average for infections has risen to 476 from 362 a week ago, with daily counts ranging from the mid-400s to the mid-600s since late last week. On Monday, the province reported 480 new cases and two deaths linked to the virus.

Juni said the trend marks the end of a plateau in infections that came after an earlier bump in July -- the beginning of the fourth wave -- when the province's economic reopening accelerated and people began interacting in higher numbers.

Millions more Ontarians got vaccinated against the virus over the summer, Juni said, and people's behaviour stayed at a constant level, leading to a drop in infections in the fall.

But things started to shift in mid-October when the province began lifting capacity limits on sporting venues and later restaurants, Juni said. Then the weather began to cool off, driving gatherings indoors. People might have also started to take fewer precautions in light of those changes and high vaccination coverage in the province, he said.

More than 85 per cent of residents 12 and older have received two COVID-19 vaccine doses, though there's some variation across age demographics and regions.

New cases have been higher among young people, who have slightly lower overall rates of vaccination. And the recent spike has hit some regions harder than others.

Public health officials for the Sudbury, Ont., area said Monday they would reintroduce capacity limits, require masking at organized public events and require proof of vaccination for youth sports amid a “record number” of virus outbreaks and an “alarming” surge that isn’t tied to any particular setting.

The region’s top doctor said the spike in positive tests lines up with the mid-October lifting of some public health rules by the province, and said the local measures are necessary to correct course.

“Obviously, no one wants to hear this news, but we need to turn back the clock and protect people and the health system,” Dr. Penny Sutcliffe said in a statement. “We are implementing these protections as a ‘circuit-breaker’, in an effort to interrupt chains of transmission within the community and protect local businesses and workers by — we hope — avoiding any need for more drastic measures.”

Waterloo Region said Monday that daily case counts had doubled in the region, with unvaccinated people most affected and clusters at private social events with limited public health measures a significant contributing factor.

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the region's top doctor, said the change isn't unexpected as people socialize more and spend time inside.

"“It is however a reminder that the Delta variant will spread rapidly when given the chance, and that getting vaccinated and continuing to practice public health precautions in our interactions with others is of prime importance," she said in a statement.

University of Toronto public health professor Barry Pakes pointed to similar factors as Juni -- cooler weather and relaxed public health measures that may have encouraged people to let their guards down.

Pakes said the trend is concerning but not too worrying yet, thought he noted it might mean cases are even higher next month when people are start congregating for the holidays.

"Anybody who is considering getting together with family or friends over the winter holidays, who is among those 10 per cent who are unvaccinated, this is the time to get vaccinated," he said. "I think we're at a very important juncture with respect to that."

He said the pending approval of vaccinations for young children -- expected in the next few weeks -- and eventual booster doses for more people may also help keep the situation manageable into the new year.

Vaccination may also make the difference between "a persistent upward trend" in cases or a sustained, "gradual slope," Pakes said.

Juni said reintroducing capacity limits may help the situation, and added that individuals have the power to help steady the course through behavioural changes like avoiding crowds, wearing masks indoors and working from home if possible.

"There's absolutely no need to panic," he said. "Our destiny is in our own hands."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press