Toronto, Peel Region, York and North Bay Parry Sound are scheduled to re-enter the province’s colour-coded COVID-19 response framework on Monday, February 22.
However, the top doctors of Toronto and Peel have written letters to the provincial government asking that their public health units be kept in lockdown for at least two more weeks. They are concerned that the spread of contagious new variants could potentially lead to a third wave of COVID-19.
“Can we reassess our anticipated return to the provincial framework? Holding the status quo for just one incubation period, 14 days, will allow us to better see where the variant trends go and review any impact that school reopening might have on community contacts and transmission,” Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region’s Medical Officer of Health, said at a media briefing in Brampton on Wednesday morning.
Over the last week, variants of concern have grown from five cases to 45 in Peel Region, Loh pointed out. There are currently at least 40 lab-confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which first originated in the United Kingdom, and five cases of the B.1.351 variant, which was first found in South Africa. Additionally, there are over 200 more cases in Peel that have screened positive for a variant of concern as of Wednesday. These cases are undergoing genomic sequencing to confirm and identify which variant they are, Loh said.
According to Peel’s top doctor, delaying the region’s move into the framework will help to avoid a surge in cases and another lockdown.
“I know it’s not news that people want to hear, but I think just holding on for a couple more weeks will allow us to really figure out what the picture is to try to get things under control, to try to make sure that the school reopening goes off without a hitch,” he said.
“I know everyone is tired, but I also know that we can’t afford a third wave and a painful lockdown. So the next few weeks are crucial for our kids, for our businesses, for the success of our vaccination program, and for the most vulnerable among us, as they have always been,” he added.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown agrees with Dr. Loh. He says Brampton has to be “diligent” as variants of concern continue to surface across the region.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said she wanted her city to be moved back into the framework on February 22 but will heed Dr. Loh’s advice.
“I was really hoping Mississauga would move into the Grey zone on the 22nd, but our Medical Officer of Health has serious concerns about this & has recommended we stay in lockdown a little longer. I’ve trusted Dr. Loh’s opinion throughout the pandemic, and I trust him on this,” she tweeted.
However, if Peel Region does return to the province’s colour-coded system next week, he wants to see issues facing essential workers addressed such as “blitzes, rapid testing, paid sick days and protections for temporary and contract workers,” Loh said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory and Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa shared Peel Region’s concerns.
“As a public health physician I have never been as concerned about the threat of COVID-19 to your health as I am now. Not at any other point in the pandemic. I am obligated to make that clear,” de Villa said on Wednesday.
“Today it is better to delay reopening and stage reopening gradually when we have certainty that the time is right. It is better to wait until we know more than to put everyone through the yo-yo of opening, closing, reopening, and closing again and again,” she added.
There are currently 56 confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants in Toronto. But there are “about five times” that many – another 283 cases – that have screened positive for variants of concern and are undergoing further testing, de Villa pointed out.
Premier Doug Ford’s office released a statement on Wednesday afternoon following the public pleas by de Villa and Loh. It stated that Ford “will be taking a very cautious approach” to reopening and that “any decision will be made in consultation with the local medical officers of health” but did not provide any further clarity on what might happen on Monday.
While Toronto and Peel officials are pushing to keep restrictions in place for another two weeks, York Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Karim Kurji has called for his community to be placed in the red zone of the province’s framework as of Monday.