TORONTO -- The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is now 21 per cent higher than it was when Ontario entered a provincewide lockdown in December and a new report from a panel of scientific experts advising the Doug Ford government warns that it could be weeks “until the full burden to the healthcare system becomes apparent.”

The report from Ontario’s science table reveals that variants of concern now account for 67 per cent of all cases in the province and are starting to have a “substantial impact” on the healthcare system due to a higher likelihood of hospitalization and even death.

While it has been widely publicized that the B.1.1.7 variant that now makes up the majority of COVID-19 cases in Ontario is more infectious, the report reveals that there is also a 63 per cent increased risk of hospitalization, a 103 per cent increased risk of intensive care unit (ICU) admission and a 56 per cent increased risk of death from the so-called variants of concern.

They also say that the presence of the variants are driving a rise in hospitalizations involving younger people.

They say that between Dec. 14 and Dec. 20 there were 149 new admissions to the ICU but only 30 per cent of them involved people aged 59 or younger. By last week people aged 59 or younger accounted for 46 per cent of all 157 new ICU admissions.

“This is not a benign issue with these variants for people under 50 who felt that maybe with the initial COVID It wasn't a big deal. This for you now is a big deal,” Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said during a briefing on Monday afternoon, prior to the release of the report to the public.

Hospital occupancy

There are now 382 people receiving treatment for COVID-19 in intensive care in Ontario hospitals and the number could soon surpass the second wave peak of 400 reached on January 19.

Case counts are also surging, at a time that the Ford government is loosening some public health restrictions.

“Since the start of the third wave around March 1, 2021, the number of new cases, as well as hospital and ICU occupancy have surpassed prior thresholds seen at the start of the province-wide lockdown on December 26, 2020,” the report states.

“The threshold of 286 COVID-19 cases in ICUs at the time of the lockdown on December 26, 2020, was reached on March 9, 2021. Likewise, COVID-19 hospital occupancy of 755 people was reached on March 16, 2021. Finally, the threshold of 2,236 new SARS-CoV-2 infections per day was reached on March 28, 2021.”

Some restrictions lifted despite rise in cases

In recent weeks, the Ford government has altered the rules for lockdown zones to allow dining on bar and restaurant patios and increase capacity for weddings, funerals and religious services in some cases.

It has also indicated that it will permit personal care services in areas under lockdown as early as April 12.

The report from the science table doesn’t make any specific policy recommendations but it does warn that the new variants will result in a “considerably higher burden” to the health care system than was observed during the second wave.

Back then a number of GTA hospitals had to transfer patients as far away as Kingston to free up capacity for COVID-19 patients.

“Because the increased risk of COVID-19 hospitalization, ICU admission and death with VOCs is most pronounced 14 to 28 days after diagnosis, there will be significant delays until the full burden to the health care system becomes apparent,” the report warns.