OTTAWA -- April 2021 saw more confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ottawa than any other month of the pandemic to date and nearly matched the number of total cases reported from March through October of 2020.

According to data from Ottawa Public Health, 6,934 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the month of April. The previous monthly high was 3,307 cases reported in January 2021.

It took until Oct. 31, 2020 for Ottawa to see its first 7,000 cases of COVID-19, after the first case was confirmed on March 11.

The deaths of 41 residents of Ottawa from COVID-19 reported this past April make it the deadliest month of 2021, and the third deadliest month of the pandemic overall after May 2020's 168 COVID-19 deaths and November's 48 deaths.

The number of people in Ottawa hospitals with COVID-19 hit a pandemic high last month. OPH reported 136 residents in hospital with COVID-19 on April 20. On April 29, OPH reported 35 people in the ICU, which was also the highest ever reported.

Speaking with CTV News Ottawa on Sunday, Dr. Doug Manuel, Senior Scientist at the University of Ottawa and member of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Table said the sheer amount of COVID-19 in the community put many more people at risk.

"Even though the risk of death is lower for people in the community, the large numbers have caused deaths in Ottawa and Canada to increase," he said.

The latest wave of COVID-19 in Ottawa was due in large part to variants of concern (VOCs), which increased sharply. At the beginning of the month, OPH said it was aware of 596 cases of COVID-19 that were identified as a known VOC or had a genetic mutation. That number would climb to 4,899 by the end of the month. According to data from Public Health Ontario, between half and two thirds of all COVID-19 cases in Ottawa were tested for mutations or VOCs.

Despite the presence of VOCs, Manuel says the current rate of decline in Ottawa is promising.

"In Ottawa, the [hospitalizations are] plateauing and the wastewater is coming down. When we put those together we’re starting to see true cases coming down," he said. "We’re seeing a decrease in cases in Ottawa in the last few weeks at the same rate we saw in January, except now we’ve got the variant. So it’s been really very good progress."

Ontario enacted a province-wide stay-at-home order on April 8. While cases continued to rise for several days afterwards, hitting a record 370 new cases just three days later, daily case counts have since started to stabilize and the weekly incidence rate of new cases, which hit a pandemic peak of 222 cases per 100,000 residents on April 17, has been slowly declining and is now just above 120 cases per 100,000 people. Under Ontario’s previous colour-coded framework, an incidence rate of 40 cases per 100,000 was the minimum threshold for the “red-control” level, which is the level immediately below “lockdown” status.

In a Friday statement, Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she is pleased to see cases stabilize, but she cautioned residents that it is still too early to consider reopening schools and other gathering places.

"The rates of COVID-19 in the community, while still high, are stabilizing. I say this as encouragement, not to imply that we are ready to ease restrictions; we are not there yet," she said. "Hospitals in Ottawa continue to be operating with elective procedures canceled to make space and staff available to care for COVID-19 patients and people transferred from the Greater Toronto Area. Our rates are still too high to reopen schools. The current Provincial measures need to remain in place for a little while longer. If the restrictions are lifted too soon, we risk entering another resurgence, and we all know how difficult it has been to recover from these waves."

Vaccine rollout ramps up

On Thursday, the province announced an accelerated timeline to deliver first doses of vaccines to all adults in the province.

The provincial government says it anticipates being able to open up vaccine appointments to anyone 18 years of age or older by the week of May 24.

Etches says there is very little hesitancy toward the vaccine in Ottawa.

"Our recent polling confirmed the vast majority of people in Ottawa want a COVID-19 vaccine, which means that when we do eventually have enough supply – and we will, soon! - we will be able to achieve community immunity," she said.

As of Friday, 37 per cent of all eligible residents 16 and older have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Ottawa Public Health data. That accounts for 31 per cent of the total population of Ottawa.

Etches warned that although this is a good step toward ending the pandemic, pandemic health measures should still be practiced for some time yet.

"I want to remind those who have received a vaccine – whether one dose or both – or who will be receiving one soon that keeping up with the behaviours like maintaining distance from others, wearing a mask, and keeping your hands clean, when with people outside of your households, is needed to protect people until more people are fully vaccinated," Etches said. "People have tested positive for COVID-19 in the days and weeks following immunization, as the vaccine takes time to build immunity and is not 100 per cent effective. Outbreaks have resulted from people letting up on these measures after receiving one dose."

Etches says the day will come when restrictions can and will be eased but, in the meantime, the measures people have been following since the early days of the pandemic will need to remain in effect a little while longer.

"We want to prevent as many people from getting sick as possible until we reach that day of significant protection from high vaccine coverage," Etches said.

OPH anticipates sharing more news next week about opening up vaccination appointments to adults 18 and older in select neighbourhoods.