Despite dire warnings & a third wave, Peel’s top doctor eyes loosening of some grey-zone restrictions

·5 min read

Dr. Lawrence Loh is contemplating going against the position of medical groups that have declared a third wave of infections in Ontario and are warning against the loosening of current restrictions.

Peel’s top public health official is suggesting some restrictions the region is currently under, as part of the Province’s grey-zone categorization, such as the prohibition of outdoor dining and fitness classes outside, could be lifted.

“Although the decline we were seeing has stalled, we know that improving weather means that we might be able to take advantage of outdoor spaces where the risk of transmission is diminished, especially if precautions are adhered to,” Dr. Loh told The Pointer. His suggestion of perhaps lifting some outdoor restrictions is based on data showing the low risk associated with safe outdoor activities such as dining outside restaurants.

His contemplation of the move, as many Peel restaurants and businesses suffer in the current lockdown, which has been in place since late November, goes against the data presented by medical and scientific groups.

Figures for hospital capacity and Variants of Concern (VOCs) led the Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) to declare on Monday that Ontario had officially entered a third wave of the pandemic.

The organization tweeted figures from the Ontario Science Table, which advises the provincial government and made the same declaration, to explain its reasoning, urging safety measures be kept in place. “Strong adherence to public health measures is urgently needed to prevent overwhelming hospitals,” the tweet stated. The Science Table estimated, as of Monday, 49 percent of total cases in the province were due to VOCs.

New research from the University of Guelph and University of Waterloo indicates new cases of COVID-19 in the GTA could triple by the first week of April; when almost 3,800 cases a day are projected, according to their model.

Data from the COVID-19 Modeling Collaborative, which includes scientists and doctors from the University of Toronto, University Health Network and Sunnybrook Hospital, show that as of March 16, Mississauga’s Credit Valley Hospital was beyond its full ICU capacity, Mississauga Hospital’s ICU was nearly 100 percent full; and Brampton Civic was almost at 90 percent capacity.

Peel Public Health considers 90 percent and above to be in the danger zone.

The region’s daily infection count has also been on the rise this week.

Despite the numbers and all the warnings, Dr. Loh seems comfortable with the possibility of lifting restrictions on outdoor dining and fitness classes.

He acknowledged the rising case count on Wednesday but noted there are positives as well; the weather is improving, and vaccines are slowly trickling in. This has led to a discussion “to strike a balance” between restrictions and the possibility of modifying current grey-zone requirements. He says they will be maintained for now but evidence shows the risk of transmission outdoors is low, especially if people follow precautions.

Peel’s slow vaccine delivery is causing problems for officials hoping to ease restrictions, and raises more questions about the move Loh is contemplating. If adequate supplies don’t arrive within the next few weeks, infection rates could get out of control, especially if the loosening of restrictions compounds the problem. Peel had seen only 7.4 percent of the province’s vaccine supply administered in the region, as of last week. It has about 10.5 percent of the Ontario population, so its per capita rate of inoculation is far below where it should be, especially considering it’s the province’s worst hotspot.

The overall number of doses administered is also way below the target. As of the last week of February less than half the Region’s target had been reached and vaccine supply has lagged since.

Combined with the recent rise in infections, concern over lifting restrictions has been voiced.

Loh was asked what led him to consider lifting some outdoor restrictions while case numbers rise and vaccine supplies lag, but he did not provide details. He said reopening adjustments could be considered “particularly where there is an opportunity to leverage the outdoors for things such as dining and fitness.” All options are being discussed but the final decision is up to the Province, he emphasized.

Restaurants are one of the many business sectors suffering due to Peel’s prolonged inclusion in the lockdown. In a presentation to Brampton’s Committee of Council last week, staff said accommodation and food services is one of the top three industries impacted most severely by the pandemic. In April, more than 5,000 restaurants closed their doors across the province, and while numbers have declined in recent months, hundreds are still closing or on the brink. Between January and July, 23,300 people who worked in the sector in Peel lost their job.

For the first time in four months, residents experienced their first sense of freedom last week when the Province ended its stay at home order in Peel, allowing some non-essential businesses, such as retail stores, to open their doors under strict limits.

Moving out of the grey zone doesn’t seem to be an option for the region, given the rise in case numbers in Brampton and Mississauga, an increase in school cases and the rapid increase of VOCs.

It’s unclear what impact a modified grey-zone could have on the rising VOC cases and hospital admissions.

According to the Province’s dashboard, Peel had 199 new infections on March 16, 253 yesterday and 294 today. If the numbers continue to follow this trajectory, Dr. Loh will likely have his decision on loosening restrictions made for him.

Email: nida.zafar@thepointer.com

Twitter: @nida_zafar

Tel: 416 890-7643

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Nida Zafar, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer