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Toronto's top doctor says the city is nowhere near being ready to reopen

Following Premier Doug Ford's announcement that regions across the province will slowly begin moving out of the shutdown and back into the government's newly-updated COVID-19 framework system, Toronto officials offered a less optimistic outlook on the prospect of the city's reopening.

The province's current prediction is that Toronto will remain under a stay-at-home order and in full lockdown until Feb. 22, at which point the city could then move into the framework which would allow for some relaxing of public health measures, including reopening retail stores for in-person shopping.

But speaking during the city's COVID-19 press briefing Monday afternoon, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said the confirmed arrival of new variants of concern means we are entering a brand new pandemic and now simply is not the time to be reopening.

"We are in a position of great uncertainty with respect to variants, but what we know is alarming," she said. "I understand the value of preparing for the time we can lift restrictions. From a public health perspective in Toronto, that time is not now."

The doctor said it is a known fact that cases will begin to rise again as soon as members of the public interact more, and this will only be exacerbated if the variants of concern become the dominant strains in Toronto since they are proven to be far more transmissible.

According to de Villa, new projections from the Canadian Centre For Disease Modelling at York University reveal that even a slight increase in case rates could result in many more deaths. 

With unchanged transmission rates, the death toll in Toronto would rise to almost 5,500 by May, according to the modelling, while a transmission increase of 10 per cent could result in more than 9,200 fatalities by May and an increase of 20 per cent could lead to a tragic 15,865 deaths by that time.

"I don't believe that now is the time for us in Toronto, given our circumstances, to relax public health measures," she said. "I think we need to be very concerned around that which we're seeing with COVID-19's variants, particularly given what we're learning from what has happened in other jurisdictions."

When asked directly by a reporter if she thinks Feb. 22 is too soon for Toronto to reopen, de Villa said she doesn't think we should be looking at specific timelines right now and should instead be focusing on continuing to practice self-protection measures. 

She added that she wants to see ongoing reduced transmission of the virus, which will likely be a challenge and may require extra caution now that new variants have arrived.

Toronto Mayor John Tory also chimed in in support of de Villa's message during the presser, saying the city will not hesitate to do anything and everything necessary to protect public health and adding that he strongly believes Ford will listen to Toronto when it comes time to make decisions about relaxing restrictions in the province's biggest city.

"I'm confident that if things are not where they should be as we arrive at any particular date going forward, that the premier, as he has, will take that into account and do what is best for public health," he said.

"Because after all, if this city isn't healthy, then its economy can't be healthy, its people can't be healthy, its students can't be healthy, the city itself won't be healthy and I know that he doesn't want that." 

"I certainly don't," he continued. "The medical officer of health doesn't, so it'll be our job to watch what's going on and watch all these developments very carefully and give him the best advice that we can."

But for now, de Villa has made it very clear that her recommendation is for Toronto to continue on its current trajectory of reducing transmission through strong public health measures.

"I would suggest that it's best, particularly for Toronto as this time, to continue in its current state, as difficult as it is," she said. 

"Just given what we understand of our circumstances, I'm very buoyed by the fact that we have declining case counts and that we have seen improvements in our indicators and numbers, but now is not the time to relax," she continued. 

"It is continued vigilance that's required in order to bring those numbers down, particularly in light of variants of concern and what we understand of how they can change the picture in relatively a short period of time."

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez

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