Officials will decide this week whether Toronto must once again impose more restrictions to deal with the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, this one fuelled by new, more contagious variants of the virus.
“We have many reasons to be optimistic, with the news of increased supply of vaccine,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city’s medical officer of health, speaking at Monday’s COVID-19 update from city hall.
“But I must be clear, the pandemic is far from over.”
The seven-day moving average for new COVID-19 cases in Toronto is now sitting at 420, up from 354 on March 9.
The reproductive number for variants of concern is 1.2. It stands at 1.1 overall. A reproductive number greater than one means the pandemic is growing.
In all, 2,721 Toronto residents have died of COVID-19.
“It was only a couple of months ago, on January seventh of this year, that we passed 2,000 deaths in our city,” said de Villa.
Asked why cases began rising around March 2, de Villa said it could be partly related to schools reopening, but cellphone use data also shows that people are on the move — Toronto residents, for example, have been travelling to nearby communities with fewer restrictions in order to shop.
De Villa also pointed to Europe, where a third wave of the pandemic has triggered another lockdown across much of Italy. Germany has acknowledged a third wave; France has increased restrictions. Case counts are also soaring in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, de Villa said.
“Here in Toronto, the variants raise the question about where we go from here. A decision will be made this week about where we best fit in the provincial COVID-19 response framework,” de Villa said.
“I want to be clear, I only recommend restrictions when they are necessary to protect the greatest number of people from widespread risk of infection. I share everyone’s desire to get back to normal.”
Toronto loosened pandemic restrictions only a week ago, on March 8, following more than 100 days in lockdown, during which most stores were closed except for online orders and curbside delivery.
It is currently in the “grey” zone of the provincial framework.
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The Ontario Hospital Association on Monday declared the province to be in its third wave of COVID-19, based on rising ICU numbers, but de Villa shied away from that assessment, saying she is still reviewing indicators.
She said numerous factors must be considered, including the impact of restrictions on the ability of residents to earn income, the impact restrictions have on mental health and how well people are likely to abide by the restrictions.
Mayor John Tory said last week that he’d like to see Toronto move into a less restrictive stance, or “red” zone, under provincial guidelines, as soon as feasible. On Monday, he said the city is continuously reviewing the situation.
“We are engaged in virtually continuous discussions involving the chief medical officer of health, myself and others, where we are trying to figure out what the best advice and circumstances are for the city of Toronto, taking into account health considerations, the psychology of the people, regional realities and business conditions in no particular order, except that health always has to come first,” said Tory.
Chief Matthew Pegg, who leads COVID-19 emergency operations in Toronto and the city’s vaccine task force, said the sign-up for vaccinations at the city’s three mass immunization clinics, which launched on Friday, went well, with more than 11,000 people making appointments.
The clinics are scheduled to open on March 17 at the Toronto Congress Centre in Etobicoke, the Scarborough Town Centre and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto. Only people born in 1941 or earlier — those turning 80 in 2021 or older — may book at this time.
Toronto Public Health’s booking system redirects residents to the provincial portal.
Some Torontonians, including Jinnean Barnard, were frustrated on Monday by the provincial vaccination booking system.
Barnard went online at about 8:30 a.m. to try to get a reservation for her 87-year-old mother, who lives in Sarnia.
She repeatedly got partway through the process before getting an error message. Multiple phone calls had also failed to get her mother an appointment by mid-afternoon.
“When you know everyone’s really anxious, worried about their family members, then just communicate clearly,” about the technical problems so people know they aren’t doing something wrong, said Barnard, who finally got the appointment booked around 4:45 p.m.
“Otherwise you feel like you’re dealing with a void.”
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF
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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