By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian health officials on Friday said tough public measures should be maintained to prevent new variants of COVID-19 from triggering a third wave, just as some of the major provinces are relaxing restrictions.
Ontario and Quebec, the most populous of the 10 provinces, are gradually allowing shuttered businesses to reopen and easing limits on the size of public gatherings.
But Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said a new longer-term forecast showed loosening measures could allow new daily cases to spike to 20,000 from around 2,900 at present.
"We are at a critical point in the pandemic. ... This model predicts that with more contagious variants spreading, further lifting of the public health measures will cause the epidemic to resurge rapidly and strongly," she told a briefing.
Her comments were the latest from medical authorities across the country expressing concern that the new variants could trigger a third wave of the coronavirus.
The Ontario government said on Friday that a lockdown in Toronto, Canada's largest city, would be extended to March 8 because cases were still growing too quickly.
"We can't let our guard down yet," Ontario premier Doug Ford told reporters.
Canada has recorded a total of 21,498 deaths from COVID-19 and 837,497 cases. The variants - which are more contagious than the most common form of the coronavirus - have been discovered in every province.
"This is a difficult situation for everyone - people are fed up, frustrated, they want an end to this COVID-19. We're going to have to hold on for several more weeks," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters.
Asked about the apparent contradiction between Tam's warning and moves by some jurisdictions to lift restrictions, Trudeau expressed confidence in the provinces, saying they were very aware of the risks posed by the new variants.
"The federal government is not there to judge the efforts of provinces. (It) is there to help," he said.
New modeling shows the domestic death toll could be between 21,510 and 22,420 by Feb. 28, with total cases ranging from 841,650 to 878,850.
Separately, Washington announced that U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico would remain closed to nonessential travel until at least March 21, the one-year anniversary of the restrictions to address COVID-19 transmission concerns.
(Additional reporting by David Shepardson and Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)