“Am I missing something here,” a journalist asked Adalsteinn Brown, the head of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, after he had walked viewers and reporters through the latest pandemic data and modelling, “or is this presentation actually predicting a disaster?”
“No,” Dr. Brown replied, “I don’t think you’re missing anything.”
Ontario’s chief pandemic science advisor, who is also the dean of the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health, was being as diplomatic as possible, since policy calls are ultimately for elected officials. But over the course of a press conference last Thursday, he left no doubt that the Doug Ford government’s plan to lift Ontario’s stay-at-home order and reopen many businesses flies in the face of evidence and experience. The move is premature, and it risks setting off a third wave.
It’s true that the restrictions Ontario and other provinces put in place last fall have bent the curve of the second wave. All else equal, it might be possible to consider easing. But all else isn’t equal: New variants of the virus have arrived, and they are much more infectious.
The good news is that vaccines can defeat the variants, though as of Tuesday just 2.6 per cent of Canadians had received at least one shot. When a lot more Canadians are vaccinated, the way will be clear for a wide reopening. The example of Israel, the world’s vaccination leader, shows what’s possible.
But Israel is miles ahead of Canada – despite having less than one-quarter Canada’s population, it has already administered more than six million doses, or more than five times as many shots as Canada. It will be months until Canada’s vaccination rate reaches those levels. In the meantime, the newer and more virulent variants of the novel coronavirus are spreading. It’s why one of Dr. Brown’s key conclusions was that, “cases will likely grow again in late February, with ICU admissions increasing afterwards.”
The new variants strongly suggest that public-health measures need to be kept in place, and even strengthened, until the vaccination rate is higher. Ontario is, however, moving in the opposite direction. It’s opening schools – an urgent priority, but one that will increase interpersonal contact and likely spread – while loosening restrictions on movement, dining and shopping. It’s a pandemic equation featuring addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division.
A jurisdiction reacting the right way is Newfoundland and Labrador. Atlantic Canada’s four provinces have been world-beaters in the COVID-19 fight. The imposition of the strictest restrictions last spring allowed them to largely reopen their economies and schools in the summer. In Newfoundland, residents have enjoyed something close to normal lives ever since, thanks to early victories and ongoing border vigilance.
In the past year, only four people in Newfoundland have died from COVID-19 – the last one in early October. The province recorded just 18 new cases in January. From mid-December until early February, just one person was hospitalized with COVID-19. On Feb. 3, that number dropped to zero.
Newfoundland had reason to believe it had the virus very much in hand. On Feb. 7, it reported one new case of COVID-19. But the next day, it had 11 new cases. The day after: 30. Then 53. And then, on Feb. 11, it had 100 new cases – equivalent to nearly 3,000 cases per day in Ontario. The importation of the so-called U.K. variant was behind the surge.
Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, described this new variant as “a complete game changer” because it is “far more transmissible than the original COVID strain; even brief interaction can result in spreading the virus.” In response, Newfoundland quickly moved back into last spring’s near-total lockdown. The province is doing the right thing to wrestle infections down to zero, and buy itself time for vaccines to arrive.
Which brings us back to Ontario’s very different approach.
Unless lowering restrictions and increasing human interactions somehow fails to speed the spread of new variants, the reopening already under way in parts of Ontario is likely to undo the good work of January’s stay-at-home effort. It’s likely to lead to a sharp spike in cases, perhaps as soon as late February. And that’s likely to trigger a new and even heavier lockdown in March – because it will be months before vaccination levels are high enough to defeat COVID-19.
Are we missing something?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.