A Turning Point Meets a Wrong Turn

Amid continued evidence that COVID levels remain dangerously high, the Province has created new regulations likely to make them higher.

First the numbers: Toronto’s weekly case total stands at 2445, very close to last week’s all- time high and up significantly from1900 weekly cases when the Province deemed it necessary to close bars, gyms and indoor dining. COVID hospitalizations in Toronto are up 63% over that period.

Until this week, rising numbers have meant more restrictions until the situation is under control and it is safe to loosen them.

New Regulations:  Unless something changes by November 14, new Provincial guidelines could force Toronto to re-open everything that was closed last month, at the request of Toronto Public Health.

This week, Ontario introduced a new five-stage model which imposes less restrictive COVID controls on all municipalities. Toronto’s own assessment tools are currently on red, the highest warning level, meaning that more effort – not less – is needed to control the virus.

Under the new rules, Toronto would only see closures if the City reached thresholds of 100 weekly cases per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of at least 10%. This means that 10% of those tested would need to test positive, a number that would not be reached until COVID is so rampant in the community that nothing short of a complete shutdown would likely curb it. At today’s high levels, Toronto’s positivity rate is about 3%.

It should be noted that the new rules also include more protective measures: alcohol sales end at 9:00 and no more than four persons are allowed at an indoor table; in gyms, those exercising must be three metres apart.

The Politics of COVID A month ago, when Premier Ford reluctantly introduced the closures that are now being removed, he said it would be negligent not to take measures to curb the spread. So why the about face? In a word, politics.

Although most older and vulnerable residents favour restrictions to help keep them safe, a larger number of younger people have COVID fatigue. They want to go back to the gym or meet friends for dinner or drinks. Many feel their health threat is low and that it should be up to them to decide what level of risk to accept.

Politicians seem to be listening. A group of 12 Ontario mayors, including Toronto’s John Tory, last week asked the Province to find a way to open up again safely.

To be sure, supporting struggling businesses while battling the spread of the virus is a difficult balancing act, made more difficult by the coming of winter. But until now, the Premier has consistently come down on the side of health and safety. This week’s changes significantly shifts that priority in favour of re-opening.

Not surprisingly, the changes set off alarm bells among health experts who argued that this was exactly the wrong thing to do. I share that view. And we’ve seen what happened elsewhere when re-opening happened while numbers were already too high.

Few would argue against an approach aimed at living safely with COVID, finding the elusive balancing point between public health on one side and struggling businesses on the other. In the summer, with public co-operation and help from the weather, we were largely able to do both.

That was the time to introduce a “learning to live with COVID” system – an approach that only works when you have the numbers under control and a plan to keep them there. To do so now, in my view, creates an unacceptably high risk that the virus could again sweep through nursing homes, with hospitals overwhelmed, more community cases finding their way into schools, and Public Health unable to handle contact tracing.

While it continues to be true that younger people are far less likely to get sick enough to be hospitalized, it is equally true that they create community spread which passes the virus to others for whom that is not the case.

Governments – meaning all of us through our taxes – need to help restaurants and other businesses make it through to spring. Much of that has already been announced. And each of us should do all we can to give them business.

This week’s music video reflects my feelings about rising COVID numbers, shifting Provincial priorities and more Americans supporting Donald Trump than I would have thought possible.