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Ontario could drop its mask mandate by the end of March, top doctor says

Ontario could drop its mask mandate by the end of March, the province's chief medical officer of health says. The news comes as the province reports 834 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 19 more deaths linked to the virus.

News comes as Dr. Kieran Moore says actual COVID-19 infections likely 10 times reported number

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore held his first COVID-19 briefing Thursday since the province scrapped its proof-of-vaccine system and all remaining capacity limits on Tuesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario could drop its mask mandate by the end of March, the province's chief medical officer of health says, even as the actual number of COVID-19 cases is likely 10 times higher than is being detected through PCR testing.

The news comes as the province reports 834 people in hospital with COVID-19 and 19 more deaths linked to the virus.

In his first COVID-19 update since the province scrapped its proof-of-vaccine system and remaining capacity limits on Tuesday, Dr. Kieran Moore said the province is monitoring the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, which he said is very similar to BA.1, but is 30 per cent more transmissible. 

"We anticipate BA.2 taking over as the dominant strain" by mid-March, he told reporters Thursday.

Key indicators appear to be promising, Moore said, but Ontario is monitoring some "regional variations" particularly in the province's north, he said. 

Moore said Thursday the actual number of COVID-19 cases in the province is likely 10 times the reported figure based on limited testing. The province confirmed just over 2,200 new cases Thursday. That means there are an estimated 20,000 more Ontarians with COVID-19 "today as we speak," he told reporters.

Asked about when the province intends to drop its masking mandate, Moore wouldn't commit to a firm date but said it could happen by the end of  the month.

"We can only mandate masking for so long," Moore said, but stressed that those at higher risk of COVID-19 should continue to wear them after the mandate ends. He also encouraged the public to be considerate of those who continue to wear masks.

'Ongoing risk'

While he believes the worst of the current wave is over, Moore said there will be "ongoing risk" of spread due to BA.2 over the coming weeks. 

Moore said there doesn't appear to be an heightened risk of hospitalizations from BA.2, but pointed to studies suggesting a greater risk of reinfection from the subvariant for those who have already had COVID-19.

Moore was also asked Thursday whether the province might open up PCR testing to the public again. He responded that the province is completing about 20,000 tests daily and said the current strategy is working.

The province is moving toward a time when someone who has a positive rapid test is asked to take a PCR test to confirm their infection, he said, but that strategy is not yet in place.

​Moore is set to hold his final scheduled weekly briefing on March 10, as key public health indicators continue to improve. After that, Moore will continue to hold COVID-19 announcements "as required," said Alexandra Hilkene, Ministry of Health spokesperson, in a statement last week.

Hospitalizations dip slightly

Meanwhile, Thursday's reported hospitalizations mark a slight dip from the 847 reported Wednesday, and 1,066 this time last week.

According to the Ministry of Health, about 45 per cent of those admitted to hospital were seeking treatment for COVID-19 symptoms, while 55 per cent were admitted for other reasons but have since tested positive for the virus.

Of those hospitalizations, 267 patients are in intensive care — a drop from 273 on Wednesday and 302 one week ago.

About 80 per cent of those patients were admitted to ICU specifically for the virus, while the rest were admitted for other reasons but also tested positive for the virus. 

The 19 additional deaths reported by the province Thursday push the official death toll to 12,497.

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