‘Highest Risk Is Behind Us’: Ontario on Course to Lift Mask Mandate by End of March, Says Moore

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health says the province can anticipate the lifting of mandatory masking requirements by the end of March if the key public health indicators for COVID-19 continue to improve.

Dr. Kieran Moore said while Ontario lifted the capacity limits for all indoor public settings and ended proof of vaccination requirements on March 1, “masking requirements remain in place for now.”

“We’ll be monitoring the data in the coming weeks. I do agree with the premier and the [health] minister that because the trends look so good that we can anticipate—if the trends continue—removing mandatory masking by the end of March,” he told reporters on March 3.

Moore said the percentage of people who tested positive for COVID-19 is “stable” and new admissions to hospitals and intensive care units have been declining in Ontario. The number of outbreaks in high-risk settings, such as in hospitals and long-term care homes, are also dropping.

“We are removing measures over time, and that is because we have hospital capacity, we have capacity to care for Ontarians if necessary, we have ICU capacity,” he said, adding that “the highest risk is behind us.”

“We saw the risk of hospitalization peak around the third week of January. And we’ve had declining rates from 4,000 down to around 800 Ontarians in hospital now, testing positive with COVID-19. But it does not mean the risk is gone and hence the reason we’re keeping masking, and delaying removing that at a population level for the next couple of weeks as we follow the data.”

No Increased Risk From Omicron Sub-variant

Moore said the government is paying close attention to wastewater surveillance, which is now a key indicator to track the transmission of COVID-19 in communities. He said that although a rise in the Omicron sub-variant BA.2 has been found in the province, most sampling sites show “a downward or stable trend in COVID detections.”

“While BA.2 is very similar to BA.1 Omicron sub-variant that is currently dominant in Ontario, we know that it is 30 percent more transmissible and will likely become the sub-variant in the coming weeks,” he said.

He noted that there hasn’t been “any increased risk of hospitalization” due to BA.2, which is taking over as the dominant strain among the Omicron sub-variants.

“The only concern is the transmissibility factor, so it can spread quite quickly, and there are some studies that show a very small risk of reinfection. If you’ve had BA.1, you can get a risk of reinfection with a BA.2 variant but that seems to be a very small proportion of all the cases,” Moore said.

He also said that 30 to 40 percent of Ontarians likely have enhanced immunity due to recent natural exposure to COVID-19 infection, which should be strong enough to prevent a rebound in case numbers even in the face of BA.2.

“Thirty to 40 percent of Ontarians have had exposure to COVID, and that combination of natural immunity plus vaccine immunity is building a strong wall of defense for Ontario against BA.2 and potentially a recurrence of Delta. So that’s good news from our vantage point that, again, is enabling us to safely open in a staged, phased manner in Ontario.”