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Mobility, test positivity prompts cautious optimism on Ontario COVID situation: Juni


TORONTO — It's become challenging to model COVID-19 trends in Ontario without accurate case data, but the scientific director of the province's expert pandemic advisory group says some indicators suggest COVID-19 hospitalizations could peak in the next few weeks.

Dr. Peter Juni of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said in a recent interview that data on mobility and test positivity offers some clues on the current disease trajectory.

People's mobility outside of their homes, which is strongly correlated with their number of contacts, has dropped significantly since late last month, and test positivity has also started to decrease.

"These two aspects together make me feel carefully optimistic," Juni said. "We will see how it goes." 

He said the trends could suggest that the COVID-19 situation in hospitals may start to peak or even plateau in the next few weeks, though he noted that hospital occupancy will need to be watched closely over the next week to see if the disease curve is indeed flattening. 

Ontario reported 3,814 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 527 in intensive care as of Friday – an increase from the 3,630 patients in hospital the previous day and 27 more people in ICU.

The highly contagious Omicron variant is sending people to hospitals in record numbers. It's become so widespread that the provincial government has reduced access to virus testing to those considered most at risk, meaning the true number of people infected is not known. 

That's made it challenging to interpret the possible path of the disease, Juni said, because the province has "lost part of our technical navigational system" without data on the number of cases. His group of pandemic researchers are turning to different parameters to come up with projections for the potential future spread of COVID-19, such as looking at wastewater surveillance data, he said. 

Earlier this month, the province brought in public health restrictions including widespread school and business closures and reductions in surgeries deemed non-urgent to stem the wave of infections that's straining the health system and labour force.

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday that he expects Ontario will have greater clarity on the impact of those measures next week. At that point, he said the province will be better able to determine how and when to proceed with lifting restrictions.

Schools are due to reopen on Monday after a two-week shutdown, though unions and school boards have warned that the weeks ahead will likely be plagued with disruptions from the Omicron wave. 

Juni said he thinks reopening schools first is the right decision because of their importance for children's learning and well-being, especially as Ontario children have been subject to the lengthiest total school closures in Canada during the pandemic. 

But he warned that families should be aware that the next little while will be "bumpy" given the COVID-19 situation, and stressed the importance of public health precautions including vaccinations. 

"Every single family needs to focus on protecting themselves, keeping in mind that we as parents are actually much more vulnerable," he said, adding that parents should prioritize getting their third doses.

Meanwhile, immunocompromised Ontarians became eligible to book appointments for a fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine Friday morning.

The province has already started administering fourth doses in long-term care homes, retirement homes and other congregate settings.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 14, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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