Variants of a deadly virus puts Toronto at risk of a third and more dangerous wave of COVID-19 infections, the city’s top doctor warned Wednesday.
Dr. Eileen de Villa has written with her Peel counterpart to the province’s chief medical officer requesting that plans to move their areas back into re-opened phases be postponed by at least two weeks and the situation be reassessed for March 9.
“I have never been as worried about the future as I am today,” Dr. Eileen de Villa said at a regular press briefing, noting there are currently 56 cases connected to variants of concern in Toronto — an increase of almost 70 per cent in just a week.
“I’ve never been as concerned about the threat of COVID-19 to your health as I am now.”
Meanwhile, de Villa said five times that number — 283 cases — were being confirmed as she spoke.
“The variants of concern mean we face a deceptively dangerous situation,” she said. “Right now the case counts … don’t look so bad. They don’t sound bad. But today’s variant count is the tip of an iceberg. By the time the confirmed case counts are big enough to shock us it will be too late to do anything. We will be in a third wave as bad as anything we’ve been through thus far.”
A Feb. 13 letter sent by de Villa and Dr. Lawrence Loh to the province’s Dr. David Williams asks the delay of assessing Toronto and Peel Region’s readiness to resume re-opening until at least March 9.
Noting the spread of variants, current case counts and pressure on hospitals, the pair said considering re-opening in these areas as of Feb. 22 “constitutes a serious risk for the residents of Peel and Toronto.”
It notes that while the current stay-at-home legislation allows local medical officers of health to use an “emergency brake” if there is a rapid increase in cases, the public would likely prefer a “progressive lifting” of the current rules rather than a return to lockdown later.
The letter asked for a meeting Feb. 14. A Toronto Public Health spokesperson confirmed the meeting did happen.
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Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday that local medical officers of health could make orders to prevent re-opening — putting the onus on individual jurisdictions to prevent businesses and other gatherings from resuming more normally instead of placing a hold on applying the framework to those areas.
But he also said they would listen to the advice of de Villa and others. Ford did not offer any assurances the request in de Villa and Loh’s letter to push consideration for re-opening to March 9 would be honoured.
Amid surging COVID-19 rates in the second wave of the virus, Ford imposed a provincial stay-at-home order on Jan. 14 that included Toronto, which had already been in a restrictive “grey zone” lockdown since Boxing Day.
Infection rates, new hospitalizations and other virus indicators in Toronto have dropped significantly since then, with Ford starting to trigger re-openings in parts of Ontario not hit as hard by COVID-19.
But de Villa said despite indicators moving in the right direction locally, there were also “warning lights flashing,” including the variant spread. Toronto hospitals still face emergency room pressures, she said, and mobility data showed more people are starting to spend more time away from home, risking increased spread.
Mayor John Tory supported de Villa’s advice Thursday, saying that re-opening schools and keeping them open was a priority.
“Despite the huge dislocation the pandemic has caused for people and businesses, the worst mistake we could make right now is to ignore the advice of our medical experts and begin to open too quickly,” he said. “With the promise of vaccinations upon us, we need to make sure this lockdown that we’re presently in is the last one.”
At the same time, reporters were told Thursday that there has yet to be any update from the federal government on when the vaccine rollout — stalled countrywide by production issues — would continue in earnest.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters last week that nine million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would arrive ahead of schedule.
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
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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