Ontario has identified its first case of the more contagious South African variant of COVID-19, and will keep business lockdown measures in place until the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital intensive care units fall by more than half the current levels, says chief medical officer Dr. David Williams.
The South African strain circulating in more than 30 countries worldwide was found in a Mississauga resident with no relevant travel history or contacts, making it likely the variant is spreading in the community.
“I would doubt it’s going to be our last one,” Williams told a news conference Monday as the province reported the confirmed number of U.K. variant cases has risen to 69, up 11 from the previous day as more test results come in.
That includes at least two cases of the U.K. strain found in an outbreak of 78 people at Belmont Meats in North York, in addition to several previously reported cases at the hard-hit Roberta Place nursing home in Barrie.
Preliminary evidence suggests COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective against the South African strain.
While Premier Doug Ford and Williams said Ontario hopes to return all schools to in-class learning by Feb. 10, with new protective measures announced earlier Monday, the doctor said easing restrictions on businesses will take longer.
New daily cases are just below half the peaks of around 4,000 in early January, but the number of patients in hospital intensive care units remains stubbornly high, at 354 in Monday’s report, with 260 of them on ventilators.
ICUs need to get below 150 COVID patients to allow hospitals to resume more non-emergency surgeries, to lessen the need for patients in areas with full ICUs to be transferred to hospitals in other regions, and to give exhausted doctors, nurses and others in critical care “a breather,” Williams said.
“The numbers are not low enough to say the hospitals are out of the heat. They’re not. They’re in the thick of it.”
Hospitals have to severely curtail non-emergency surgeries when ICUs have more than 400 COVID cases, which was the case until recently.
The variants of COVID-19 — including a Brazilian strain not yet identified in Ontario despite expanded testing — are a wild card for business reopenings because the level of community spread is yet to be pinpointed.
“How bad is it and how quickly is it going to go? We don’t know yet,” said Williams, repeating he wants daily new cases below 1,000 for reopenings — a level not seen since late October.