Who’ll Stop the Rain

The rain had ended and food vendors were preparing for a beautiful summer evening in Mel Lastman Square when my optimism was broken by a weather report: “It’s going to be storming again in about 20 minutes.”

I rushed out to warn the vendors. But because it was neither what they were witnessing nor what they wanted to hear, most disregarded the news – until the bad weather arrived on schedule, sending everyone scrambling for cover.

Welcome to the pandemic’s third wave, accompanied by the end of winter, good news about vaccine rollouts, and an easing of restrictions at the beginning of a more dangerous phase. And the more we try to simply wish this wave away, the more we obstruct our path to the new normal we’re all trying to get to.

Case numbers reached their highest point in mid-winter and then dropped dramatically as governments imposed restrictions and most people followed them. Now, as we’ve eased up, cases are moving quickly back up.

The average daily count in Toronto moved to 420 this week, up from 372 a week earlier. Across Ontario, the count went to 1471 from 1337. Today’s numbers are higher than those averages.

If you think you’ve seen this movie before you might be mistaken. This one stars “Variants of Concern”, virus mutations which are both more transmissible and, it seems, make people sicker faster. The B.1117 variant, first identified in the U.K., now makes up more than half of infections here and will soon crowd out COVID classic.

Variants have contributed to outbreaks where people gather, including a 5000-employee Amazon site and a local shelter. Earlier this week, testing detected an outbreak at a city-operated shelter at 5800 Yonge St. All those who tested positive have been transferred to an isolation facility and even those testing negative have been ordered by Toronto Public Health to stay in place as more testing occurs and plans are put in place to isolate any additional positive cases.

Because the UK variant spreads about 50 percent faster, numbers across the province could skyrocket in coming weeks. Even conservative modelling sees them doubling within a few weeks. Preliminary and anecdotal evidence also suggests that this variant may cause more illness in younger age groups.

The 20-29 and 30-39 age groups have the highest number of variant infections, and there are currently 31 people in this age group hospitalized with COVID in Toronto, two of them in Intensive Care.

Today, the Province announced a loosening of restrictions in Toronto and Peel, where the Medical Officers of Health asked that their municipalities stick with the Grey Zone restrictions but allow outdoor dining.

Starting tomorrow, the province is allowing restaurants in the Grey Zone to re-open their patios – but only for members of the same household or people who live alone or require a caregiver. Allowing people to eat outside supports restaurants while posing very little risk, provided restaurants are not attempting to create enclosure.  We know that COVID is much less likely to spread outdoors.

Dramatically rising cases could, of course, lead to another province-wide shutdown. Much of how this plays out is up to us. A simple way of protecting yourself and others is to assume that anyone you encounter could have COVID. Wearing a snug-fitting mask, and avoiding close contact with anyone outside your household makes your risk very low. And those standard precautions work just as well with variants.

So let’s keep that up for a few more months until the storm passes.

– John