Here's why Ontario hasn't gone back into lockdown despite the COVID-19 surge
Pressure is mounting from members of the public — and, in some cases, medical experts — for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to roll back Stage 3 reopening restrictions amid fast-rising rates of COVID-19.
Many in the province were sure we'd seen the end of dining inside bars and restaurants, at least for now, when the number of new daily cases hit a record 700 Monday morning.
While he did confirm that Ontario had entered a second wave of the pandemic that day, Ford didn't order any more businesses to close. Nor did he on Tuesday during his daily press conference, or today, after new modelling data revealed that we could be seeing 1,000 new cases per day by mid-October.
The province may have a plan in place to handle this next wave of cases, but officials have also stated that round two is expected to be worse than the first.
So how is everything still open?
Public health units across the province were reporting less than 50 new cases per day when a state of emergency was first declared over the pandemic in March, shutting down all non-essential services including schools, theatres, libraries, gyms, bars and restaurants, except for takeout.
The total number of cases at the time was below 200. Today, we've tallied 51,710 infections, 43,907 recoveries and 2,848 deaths.
It's a question Ford, Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health have been fielding all week, and their answers may put your mind at ease.
Here's the gist of what our leaders are saying about putting lockdown measures back into place.
It was just over six months ago when the 2019 novel coronavirus prompted what many of us now refer to as the "lockdown" in Ontario — the period of time between March 17 and Stage 1 of reopening on May 19.
Scientists have learned a lot about COVID since then: How it spreads, who it's likely to kill, and how humans can protect themselves against it.
Ontario residents have also had time to adjust to pandemic life since being told to stay inside unless absolutely necessary. Nobody's hoarding toilet paper anymore, for instance, or risking their lives for eyelash extensions.
We're used to bringing masks everywhere we go at this point, we know to stay away from crowds, and we're washing our hands more often if we're smart.
COVID-19 may still be spreading, but it doesn't present the same ominous threat that it did in January when we didn't know much more about the virus other than that it was highly contagious.
"I think when you're trying to compare what we did during the first wave... to compare the two, you have to understand the differences between then and now," said Williams during a press conference today.
"It came on very suddenly, a lot was travel related and we didn't have all the data and information we have now," he said. "We didn't have the testing capacity then."
It may have taken some time, but Ontario's COVID-19 testing capacity has ramped up to the point where health officials are now confident that new outbreaks can be detected quickly.
Some 35,753 tests were processed yesterday alone, a far cry from fewer than 9,000 per day at the end of May.
We've also got a more robust supply of Personal Protective Equipment at this point than we did when the virus first hit, with masks and face shields being stockpiled from within Ontario. The province is furthermore gearing up to mount the largest flu immunization campaign in Canadian history to help free up hospital capacity.
Overwhelmed ICUs could still be an issue as cases rise among all age groups, but the province has plans to combat this with additional healthcare reinforcements.
Ford announced on Monday that his government is investing $52.5 million to "recruit, retain and support more than 3,700 more frontline health care workers and caregivers" under their Keeping Ontarians Safe plan.
"For months, our government has been developing one of the most robust and comprehensive COVID-19 fall preparedness plans in the entire country," said Ford of the plan on Wednesday.
"We are making an unprecedented investment of over $2 billion to fortify the frontlines of our health care system and ensure we are prepared for future waves of this virus, while ensuring patients and long-term care residents continue to receive the absolute best care from our top-notch health care professionals and their loved ones."
Stage 3 has already been scaled back slightly: Bars now have an 11 p.m. last call, strip clubs can't operate at all, and social gathering limits were recently scaled back from 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors to just 10 and 25.
In Toronto, specifically, face coverings must be worn inside all retail establishments and strict contact tracing logs are kept for bars and restaurants.
The problem, says Williams, is that a minority of people aren't following the rules at all — particularly those regarding social limits. Here's looking at you, street racing enthusiasts and smarmy King West bar owners.
During a press conference earlier this week, Ontario's top doctor said that while the concept of 10-person social bubbles "is still one we value," it only works in practice.
"We've seen a casualness and a movement away from that. It's become very much less disciplined," he said. "People have gone — as we've seen in late August and early September — it’s like, 'we're doing great, let's just be casual and forget about the discipline.'"
Williams says residents need to refocus and keep their social contact to a minimum in order to avoid further restrictions on public life, especially in "hot zones" like Toronto where case numbers have been exploding.
"COVID-19 continues to be a serious threat in our communities, and today's modelling shows the importance of adhering to public health measures," said Elliott today.
"Over the summer we saw how our collective efforts helped slow the transmission of COVID-19, we must not let our guard down now as we head into the cold and flu season. We all need to do our part and continue to follow all public health measures in place to contain and stop the spread of the virus."
Mental health professionals have been warning for months of the mass, long-term damage already done during round one of the pandemic, and Ford says the province's health command table is cognizant of this.
The premier said today that the team is taking a "very pragmatic" approach to combatting the pandemic right now, doing everything possible to maintain a "happy balance."
"Dr. Williams understands health is a priority and the economy is right there — health is number one, the economy is beside it," said Ford when asked about why more restrictions have yet to be put in place despite spiking case numbers.
Ford showed concern for the small business owners who "are holding on by their fingernails," stressing that it's important to keep people healthy, but also to keep the economy moving.
"We're very understanding of what the different issues are," said Williams, noting that health professionals can now go after "target risk areas" as opposed to making broad strokes that affect the entire province.
"We need to keep the schools open — we didn't have those open in Stage 1 and 2 and 3," he said. "The evidence from the medical specialists, the paediatricians as well as the child psychologists, said you need to do this — this is critically important for their health so doing that in a safe way is what we have to do."
Should it come to that, Williams says such measures would have to be carried out with much thought.
"If we don't do it carefully, we compromise people and put them in even a hazardous position, perhaps with mental health issues, perhaps with financial and physical issues," he said. "These are all huge impactors on people and we have to be cognizant of that."
"First do no harm, but when you need to act, you need to act in a way that is timely, efficient and effective, and carry out as we do in medicine," said the doctor.
"The right procedure, the right medicine, the right prescription, the right time and the right way, with the right dose... that's all important. That means you have to take everything into consideration."
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