TORONTO -- Ontario’s top doctor says that a rise in daily COVID-19 infections heading into the fall is expected and “not a cause for panic” as the province inches closer to exiting Step 3.

The province has seen five straight days of case counts above the 300 mark, resulting in a rise in the seven-day rolling average of daily infections to about 306.

The last time the seven-day average was this high was in late June.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said the province has experienced a “slow and steady rise” in daily COVID-19 cases over the past week, and that “Ontarians should expect to see a continued increase as we enter the fall.”

“This is not a cause for panic,” he stressed. “Our case rates will fluctuate over time.”

“We can anticipate that they will continue to go up, but it is our collective responsibility to avoid a sudden acceleration in cases by getting fully immunized.”

Moore attributed the earlier rise in cases to the long weekend and some of the Step 3 reopening that took place throughout the last few weeks of July.

“I see our cases slowly going up throughout August and then as we move indoors, the case counts will continue to rise,” he said, adding that public health units have the capacity now to proper contact trace and limit the spread of the disease.

“Given the vast majority of our elderly individuals are protected, we anticipate that the admissions to hospital, the burden of the illness that will require hospitalization, will be in younger age groups that we saw in wave 3.”

At the same time, Moore says that with strong immunization rates and proper masking protocols will give the health-care system a chance to recover.

“If we really work well together in Ontario, we can blunt this. We can decrease its impact. We can lessen morbidity and mortality and have less young people die as a result.”

ONTARIO ABOUT TWO WEEKS AWAY FROM HITTING 2ND VACCINE TARGET

According to Moore, 81 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 and older have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The province is also about three per cent away from meeting its second dose vaccination target of 75 per cent.

“It looks like we’ll be able to hit those targets over the next week to 10 days,” he said. “The highest immunization rate we can achieve will allow us to have the safest reopening.”

In order to move out of Step 3 of the province’s reopening plan, 80 per cent of eligible Ontarians must have received their first dose, 75 per cent must have received their second dose, and every public health unit must have at least 70 per cent of their eligible population fully vaccinated.

Other key indicators such as hospital capacity and case counts must also remain stable.

At this point, capacity limits will be lifted across all sectors, as well as for social gatherings and public events. The one exception will be restaurants, who will still have to maintain a distance of two metres between patrons or separate them with a barrier such as plexiglass.

Masks will also continue being mandatory indoors and where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Moore added Tuesday that his “aspirational goal” would be 90 per cent of Ontarians vaccinated. He said once the immunization rate is high enough there will be a natural immunity and low rates of illness causing intermittent outbreaks without having a significant impact on intensive care.

At that point, perhaps several years down the line, the disease could become seasonal “like any cold virus.”