The last thing that could derail Ontario’s summer has a name: B.1.617

OPINION: Another variant is in the mix in this province — and filling in the blanks about what we know is going to determine what the next few months look like
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 28, 2021
This week, Premier Doug Ford released an open letter to education stakeholders on the issue of reopening schools for in-person learning. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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It’s not much of a name, and it’s not even really a word (just a series of numbers and letters), but B.1.617 could still end up determining the course of events in Ontario in the near future. The COVID-19 variant has now been found in 322 cases, up from 45 a few weeks ago. And as was the case in the initial weeks of B.1.1.7 transmission in this province, we’re kind of operating in the dark about how quickly it’s spreading and where.

Public Health Ontario’s labs don’t have a quick method to screen for this variant the way they do with B.1.1.7, which now makes up the very large majority of all cases here. That means that even the number cited above — 322 — is almost certainly both an under-estimate and out of date. In response to inquiries from TVO.org on Thursday, Public Health Ontario did say it hopes to have a process for public reporting of the B.1.617 variant up and running “in a few weeks.”

In the meantime, all Ontario has to go by is the experience of other countries — and the province’s own recent history.

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The British government announced Thursday that as many as three-quarters of new cases in the United Kingdom could be the B.1.617 variant, which raises the spectre of a substantial rebound in new cases and further disruption of reopening plans. And that’s despite the fact that, even with recent increases, the U.K.’s current per capita new case count is approximately half that of Canada’s.

The further bad news is that the spread of B.1.617 could be masked by the overall fall in other cases, in much the same way that B.1.1.7’s spread in Ontario was initially masked by a fall in the number of original-variant cases; the variants can spread more rapidly, but initially they’re multiplying from a smaller base, so their numbers are small — until they aren’t. The B.1.617 variant could already have a reproductive number higher than 1, meaning that it’s growing exponentially.

It's no wonder, then, that what we don’t know about B.1.617 featured so heavily in Premier Doug Ford’s letter to education stakeholders on the issue of reopening schools for in-person learning before the end of the instructional year. Especially concerning, and cited in the premier’s letter, is the question of whether B.1.617 is hitting younger people particularly hard relative to past variants, given the relative lack of vaccination we’ve accomplished in people under 19.

The good news, such as it is, is that, while first doses of the various vaccines we have on hand are less effective against this newest variant, they’re still somewhat effective — and on the critical matter of preventing hospitalizations and deaths, the numbers out of England are encouraging, although far from conclusive. It’s good that the government is starting second doses for the oldest age groups soon (80-plus starting next week, and 70-plus two weeks later). What’s cause for concern is that a huge number of people in this province are still entirely unvaccinated, including, by definition, everyone under 12.

What this means for the summer is an open question. While Ontario’s current metrics are reasonably encouraging, our current seven-day average of new cases is not even where it was in the trough between the second and third waves, much less any lower. The current state of emergency is going to expire on June 2, and then we’re slated to be in some version of the old “grey-lockdown” restrictions until the middle of June, when the government was hoping to start the reopening process.

People are already impatient to get back to whatever normalcy the government is willing to legalize, and businesses that’ve barely hung on to solvency over the past year would like to make some money again. But it’s entirely possible that we’re going to need the next two weeks (or if we’re truly unfortunate, longer) just to get any kind of clarity on what B.1.617 is doing in Ontario. A lot of the blank spaces — the unanswered questions that the premier posed in his letter to education stakeholders — will start to be filled in by the planned June 14 start of Stage 1.

But that probably answers the question of whether schools will reopen at all before September — and in the negative. B.1.617 might not derail the summer entirely. It’s still basically true that the vaccine supply coming in June and July will likely allow a reasonably restriction-free August. But it’s going to take a bit longer for anyone to have real confidence.

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