Many hard-hit areas of Canada have seen rapidly increasing rates in COVID-19 infections over the past few weeks, and experts are warning that the start of 2021 could include an even higher surge of cases.

Dr. Ronald St. John, former Director General for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), told CTV News Channel on Thursday that our current case numbers don’t even reflect the past week, when many may have gathered over the holidays in contradiction of health advice.

“I’m concerned that we haven’t begun to see a spike from Christmas,” he said. “It’s only been about five, six days since Christmas, that’s not quite enough time for transmission that occurred on Christmas Day to start to show up in any significant numbers.”

Since it takes around two weeks in general for people who contracted COVID-19 to experience symptoms and get tested, we will likely only know how big the Christmas spike will be in early January.

New Year's Eve brings poses a second risky time for large gatherings.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have another spike from New Year’s Eve,” St. John said.

Officials have stressed that any celebrations should be virtual, and households should not be mixing for the kind of parties that are common in any other year.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer for B.C., reminded the public earlier Thursday to celebrate safely.

“Many of us will be ordering our favourite meals in, myself included," Henry said. "Whatever your plans may be this evening, please remember how important it is to follow the public health orders and restrictions. The actions of a small group of people, as we have seen before, can have consequences.”

She added that health officials had been made aware of "holiday celebrations being planned, some for several hundreds [of] people.”

With Christmas and New Year’s Eve potentially impacting community spread, St. John believes we’re “looking at three weeks of increasing numbers,” in January, adding that this “may well have a major impact on our health-care system.”

We won’t see the effects of provincial lockdowns that occurred in December for weeks, making it hard to know how much they have helped or not.

Dr. Hassan Masri, an ICU specialist from Saskatchewan, told CTV News that “bold decisions should have been made earlier."

“Unfortunately, they were not made early enough,” he said.

In Ontario, hospitals are being stretched to the limits in many regions. Within the province, COVID-19 patients in intensive care have doubled since the end of November, with 337 in the ICU today. In Scarborough alone, over 60 per cent of the ICU capacity is occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Albert Lauwers, chief of staff at Scarborough Health Network, told CTV News that they are bracing for an increase in cases in early 2021.

“We’re expecting spikes in January right through to mid-February,” he said.

While this is occurring, more shipments of vaccines will be making their way across Canada. But the vaccine rollout shouldn’t spur people to assume the pandemic is now over, St. John said -- it should inspire us to be more careful than ever.

With the vaccine right around the corner for the general public, “now is not the time to get COVID,” he said.

“And now’s not the time to get COVID and then spread it to somebody, especially your grandparents, or your parents, or anybody else. Now is the time to really follow the measures and try to avoid becoming infected.”

He acknowledged that this is a “very difficult time.

“I’m afraid this epidemic is going to continue on into 2021,” he said. “It’s not over, and until we get enough vaccination to control the virus, we’re still going to have to follow these measures.” 

With files from Andrew Weichel