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Don’t relax Toronto’s COVID-19 restrictions now, experts warn: ‘We’re in a very, very tenuous situation’


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Don’t relax Toronto’s COVID-19 restrictions now, experts warn: ‘We’re in a very, very tenuous situation’

COVID-19 experts say Toronto is being hit by a third wave of the virus — or a resurgence of the second wave — and officials will put residents at risk if they relax anti-virus restrictions now.

“There’s no question we’re in the third wave and it’s a pipe dream to believe that anything other than additional measures are going to cause this to abate,” said Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious-diseases specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“Our vaccination efforts are not going to simmer this down.”

Toronto’s public health chief, Dr. Eileen de Villa, said Monday she will this week advise her provincial counterpart on any changes Premier Doug Ford’s government should make to Toronto’s current “grey zone” restrictions.

Morris, one of four experts consulted Tuesday by the Star, saw indicators a couple of weeks ago suggesting a third surge in COVID-19 infections. (The first wave ran from spring to summer 2020, with another rise from autumn to mid-January.)

By Saturday, with infections including highly transmissible variants rising rapidly across the GTA, he declared a third wave with the potential for exponential growith that could crash the health-care system.

Moving from Toronto’s current grey zone to red — where indoor dining, salons and gyms can reopen with limits, and gathering sizes increase — would be “a very big risk,” said Morris.

“There’s no silver bullet solution,” he said, but just resurrecting the provincial stay-at-home order for Toronto likely isn’t wise either — “we need carrots in addition to the stick,” given residents’ fatigue with COVID-19 restrictions.

“Avoiding indoor gatherings is an ongoing necessity, people need to be able to quarantine in a timely manner, they need safe workplaces and paid sick leave. We’re in a very, very tenuous situation with variants poised for pretty aggressive growth.

“We only have to look at (infection surges and lockdowns) in parts of Europe. It’s very possible that we will see more deaths in the third wave than we did in the second.”

Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at U of T’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, is not convinced the Toronto region is in a third wave yet.

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Variables such as school reopenings, relaxed restrictions in neighbouring municipalities and the ongoing vaccine rollout make it hard to compare what’s happening now with previous infection surges, she said.

However, Banerji said the focus should be on getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible — not on relaxing restrictions on restaurants and hair salons.

“I think if we can get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible — and it’s been slow so far — we can potentially avert a third wave,” she said.

“It’s probably not the best time to open up if we can wait a couple of weeks, give out as many doses of vaccine as we can, and then look at the situation — that’s the safer best way.”

Toronto is poised to open its first three mass immunization clinics — at the Toronto Convention Centre downtown, the Toronto Congress Centre in Etobicoke, and the Scarborough Town Centre — on Wednesday, with six more clinics to follow.

Dr. Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist and mathematical modeller at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said “it’s pretty clear we’re in a third wave, or a resurgence if you think we never left the second wave.

“As much as it pains me to say it, I don’t think further reopening is advisable right now. Given what we’re seeing, in terms of not only increasing cases, but also increases in hospitalizations and (intensive care unit) occupancy, loosening restrictions right now is only going to make these trends worse,” she said.

“It makes more sense to stay the course now and focus on getting through this next wave, while also getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible, so that we can have a sustained reopening, rather than a transient one.”

Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist who sits on the province’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said: “All of the numbers available to us say Ontario is back into exponential growth” of the virus.

“While I would love to see things open, we are into wave three now, and opening on top of that will accelerate things, and I suspect will be followed by a shutdown two to three weeks later.”

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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