Ontario’s chief medical officer says he’s open to easing some outdoor restrictions in Toronto and Peel Region despite an upswing in COVID-19 cases and acknowledged publicly for the first time that the province is into a third wave of the pandemic.
“The question is what kind of wave it will be,” Dr. David Williams said Thursday in reference to the potential severity with more contagious variants circulating at ever-higher levels. “We don’t know right now.”
His comments on the fate of the only two GTA municipalities still in lockdown follows a willingness from Toronto medical officer Dr. Eileen de Villa to allow “modest expansions” in activities, particularly outdoors with COVID-19 fatigue high and temperatures warming up.
She expressed concern about going down a step in the province’s five-tier, colour-coded framework to the less restrictive red tier of public health measures where, for example, haircuts and indoor restaurant dining could resume with capacity limits.
Williams was tight-lipped on what changes will be allowed in his framework changes to be announced Friday and would not be specific when asked if barber shops and hair salons could move outside in a city where do-it-yourself trims and home dye jobs have been the only legal option since late November.
“We hope to be able to come up with some thoughts and ideas on how we might be able to help everybody stay at the task, keeping this third wave under control, because we really don’t want to see it take off in Toronto and Peel,” he told a news conference.
Numbers of cases in both municipalities are edging up, driven by variants of concern that are more dangerous in high-density areas like the GTA, he added. According to the latest provincial statistics, Peel’s cases are up 17 per cent in the last week and Toronto’s 11 per cent.
Province-wide, the seven-day average of variants in terms of total COVID-19 cases is 41 per cent, an increase from 32 per cent a week ago.
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“That’s significantly up,” said Williams, who moved Ottawa up a tier into the red zone of restrictions effective Friday after overall cases there doubled in a week and wastewater samples from the city’s sewage system suggested more growth to come.
His acknowledgment of a third wave follows declarations to that effect earlier this week by the Ontario Hospital Association, which pointed to the increase of cases and increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients in intensive care, and by the science table of experts advising Premier Doug Ford’s government.
On Monday, Williams insisted a third wave was “to be determined” but he said a “steady” increase of cases in recent weeks since stay-at-home restrictions were lifted has put the province into a more “precarious position.”
The risk is that variants reach a tipping point and suddenly cause cases to increase exponentially from the 1,553 total cases reported Thursday and a seven-day moving average of 1,427, the highest since Feb. 7.
“We have to be extra cautious in the weeks ahead,” he warned, noting outbreaks could suddenly occur in areas of the province with low levels of COVID-19.
Just days shy of next Wednesday’s provincial budget from Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy, Ford’s government announced it is extending temporary wage increases of $2 to $3 hourly for personal support workers until June 30.
The move will cost $239 million and continues the raises that first took effect in October for personal support workers in nursing homes, home and community care, social services and hospitals as an incentive to stay on the job despite the dangers of COVID-19.
Thousands of health-care workers dealing with nursing-home residents and others have become infected with the virus and 11 have died. Levels of attrition were high in the first wave of the virus, with the hardest-hit nursing homes losing as much as 80 per cent of their staff to illness and absenteeism, leading to horrific conditions for vulnerable residents in some facilities.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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