With two weeks left under Ontario’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order, health experts say it’s too soon for Premier Doug Ford to ease restrictions, warning a spike in cases from Mother’s Day gatherings could breathe new life into the third wave.
There have been signs of improvement with daily new infections gradually declining since mid-April, but cases remain at high levels reminiscent of the winter peak while the number of coronavirus patients in hospital intensive care units is barely below recent records.
“If Ontario is to end our third pandemic wave and avoid a fourth we must continue to drive transmission down,” Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the province’s associate chief medical officer of health, said Thursday.
She encouraged people who don’t live with their mothers to celebrate virtually on Sunday.
“Given the number of cases is so high still, the number of hospitalizations and ICU overload and so on, I would be surprised if things open up at the end of May. They may open partially,” Yaffe added, noting schools should be first — if conditions allow.
“Certainly, we don’t want to open prematurely and end up with a fourth wave. That is the last thing we need.”
Health experts outside the government have also been signalling Ford should keep the pressure on COVID-19 by allowing the province’s vaccination plan — to give first shots to 65 per cent of adults by the end of May — more time to take hold in the face of highly contagious variants.
The government has laid the groundwork for that by, earlier this week, extending the provincial state of emergency to June 2, which would allow a continuation of the stay-at-home order due to expire May 19.
“No decisions have been made about ending or extending it,” a senior government official told the Star.
A Wilfrid Laurier University epidemiologist and former public health official in Middlesex-London agreed the province could once again lose control of the pandemic, as it did in late March and early April.
“We’re still almost in the peak of the third wave,” said Todd Coleman. “The potential for transmission is huge. A lot of caution needs to be applied here.”
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The seven-day average of new daily cases is 3,369. That’s down from 4,208 three weeks ago but still equivalent to about 24,000 more Ontarians being infected every week — even with more than 40 per cent of adults vaccinated with one dose.
As has been seen widely in the pandemic, doctors have taken to social media to raise concerns about the government’s strategy, which saw restrictions eased in February and March despite warnings from the science table advising Ford that variants would dominate in March and leave “little room for error.”
That came true, forcing Ford to increase measures for three weeks in a row last month, including an extension of the stay-at-home order to six weeks from four.
“We’re losing the battle…we’re on our heels,” the premier acknowledged April 16.
Regarding any reopening, former University of Toronto president and medical researcher Dr. David Naylor went on Twitter to tell the premier, “No. No. No. Not even close,” pointing to 3,424 new cases and 26 more deaths reported Thursday.
“My biggest fear? We reopen too soon,” Dr. Chris Simpson, a Kingston hospital cardiologist and executive vice-president of the provincial agency Ontario Health, said on Twitter earlier this week in a post that recommended “aggressive public health measures continue for some time.”
Yaffe told the news conference the stay-at-home order is “having some effect as is the vaccine rollout.”
Public health officials are having “active discussions” on next steps that include thresholds in statistics such as case levels, testing positivity rates and ICU occupancy that should be considered for an eventual loosening of restrictions, she added.
It will have to be done “very gradually and very slowly,” Yaffe said, reinforcing her message to be careful on Mother’s Day to preserve the gains that have been made recently.
“At a time when we are only just starting to see an improvement in trends we cannot afford to put that in jeopardy…Follow the public health measures even if you have been vaccinated.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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