For citizens of Ontario trying to follow pandemic rules, the past month has been like watching a TV drama with more plot twists than Succession. In a series of announcements, some just days apart, the provincial government announced new measures, changed them, announced more new measures and changed them again.
This week, with 48 hours to spare before the end of an extended school break, Premier Doug Ford told the province’s two million elementary and secondary students and their parents that classrooms were going online until at least Jan. 17. He made the announcement just four days after his Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, had announced that in-person school would resume on Jan. 5.
To blame, the Ontario government says, is the speed with which Omicron – the new, more transmissible variant of COVID-19 behind the tidal wave of cases now crashing into the province’s hospitals – started to rip through the population, pushing the hospital system to the brink.
But members of the opposition and other critics say this stutter-step approach to new health measures is a result of a failure to act quickly on early warnings about Omicron, and that it is the latest instance of a pandemic pattern for Premier Doug Ford.
In addition to shutting down classrooms in favour of online learning, Mr. Ford decided this week to close restaurants to indoor dining, limit indoor gatherings to five people and cancel non-urgent surgeries. He told reporters this was necessary because without such restrictions hundreds of thousands of people could become infected with Omicron each day, with as many as 1,000 or 2,000 of them showing up at hospitals.
“This took me about 30 seconds to make a decision,” he said Monday. “That was a decisive decision.”
But the decision came after weeks of less-stringent moves, despite dire predictions about Omicron. The variant, which is believed to be less likely than other versions of the virus to cause severe illness or death on an individual level, is still flooding hospitals as it infects many more people than the previously dominant Delta variant. The unvaccinated are particularly vulnerable.
On Dec. 7, projections from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Table warned that intensive-care unit populations would swell even without Omicron. On Dec. 16, the science table warned that Omicron’s presence could mean 5,000 to well north of 10,000 new cases a day by January, with 300 to 600 in ICUs.
On Friday, Ontario reported 13,339 new cases – even with limited testing – and 338 people in ICUs. The majority in intensive care were unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 hit a record 2,472, topping the previous pandemic peak from April.
But as the variant gained steam a month ago, Ontario at first took small steps. On Dec. 10, the province promised to open up third-shot booster vaccines for all adults by Jan. 4. Five days later, Ontario said it would open boosters to all adults sooner, and that large venues such as sports arenas would have to chop attendance in half. In a letter dated Dec. 14, the province’s local medical officers of health wrote Health Minister Christine Elliott, urging tougher provincewide restrictions.
On Dec. 16th, as Quebec announced new Christmas gathering limits and 50-per-cent capacity limits for restaurants and retailers, Ontario at first resisted a call from its science table to bring in similar “circuit breaker” restrictions. A day later, Mr. Ford announced 50-per-cent capacity limits for restaurants and stores, and a private-gathering limit of 10 people. With cases still rising rapidly on Dec. 30, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health said schools would open Jan. 5, two days later than scheduled.
It was not until Jan. 3 that the Premier appeared again before TV cameras to announce the current round of more-stringent restrictions, as Omicron cases continued to skyrocket.
A Progressive Conservative Party source familiar with the decision-making process said Mr. Ford told a cabinet meeting on Jan. 2 that schools must be closed to help blunt Omicron’s rise. The Premier had consulted health advisers and observed a steeper rise than expected in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the New Year’s weekend, the source noted.
The move to shut schools was inevitable, the source said, as concerns mounted that the number of teachers unable to work after contracting Omicron or being exposed to the virus could upend the education system even if classrooms remained open.
Speaking at a photo-op on Friday, Mr. Ford cited reports that schools in New York were struggling to operate.
“We don’t want to see a New York City – a bunch of kids are sitting in the gymnasium doing absolutely nothing, as we see the absenteeism right across the board,” he said.
The source said that while there was a healthy debate about the moves in cabinet, there was not the same kind of resistance to public health measures as there had been in past meetings, including a chaotic one in April that resulted in a quickly retracted and widely condemned ban on playground use. Some of Mr. Ford’s political advisers had previously urged him to close schools before the holidays, the source said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source, because they were not authorized to speak publicly about cabinet deliberations.
On schools, as on so many other COVID-19 decisions, the government faces intense criticism no matter what it decides. The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario has said the government should have acted earlier and is now calling for a full lockdown, with only essential services allowed to operate. Others in the medical community have demanded that schools reopen.
Anthony Dale, president and chief executive of the Ontario Hospital Association, said the health care system has been ramping up to deal with the impact of Omicron for more than a month as it faces an unprecedented surge of patients and staff shortages. But he acknowledged the uncertainty around Omicron’s potency made it difficult for governments to bring in restrictions sooner.
“I do think there were question marks when Omicron first emerged onto the international scene about its virulence, its attack rate, its true impact to human health,” Mr. Dale said. “That’s what I think probably was a factor.”
Michael Warner, clinical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, said while Ontario could have done more and could have acted earlier, no government could have predicted Omicron.
“It wouldn’t be fair to saddle them with that,” he said, adding that governments must also consider what restrictions the public is likely to accept. “But they bet on the best-case scenario, when that may not have been wise.”
Speaking to reporters this week, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health said he will look at whether things could have been done differently.
“We will reflect on whether we timed our decisions appropriately, given a very new threat in this province of Omicron,” Dr. Moore said. “I take full responsibility for advising government on these decisions. ... I absolutely am reluctant to take away the freedoms of businesses and individuals and to keep our schools closed.”
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