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Ottawa must flatten the coronavirus curve again: Dr. Vera Etches

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health.
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa’s current trajectory of rising coronavirus infections will overwhelm the city’s health-care system and force the shutdown of schools and businesses in the fall if residents don’t take serious action now to stem the rising tide of COVID-19, the city’s top doctor said Thursday.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa medical officer of health, told members of the media Thursday afternoon that every age group under 80 in the city has seen at least a fivefold increase in the rate of coronavirus infections since the first week of July.

The latest Ottawa Public Health (OPH) report on Thursday showed 15 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the city’s number of lab-confirmed infections since the start of the pandemic to just under 2,500.

While Ottawa entered the province’s Stage 3 of reopening just under two weeks ago, Etches said the recent spike in cases has little to do with the city’s economic return and more to do with social behaviours.

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She went as far as to say that bars, when operators have implemented proper pandemic precautions, are safer environments than house parties during the pandemic.

“The idea that it’s the bars, or a particular place of work, is problematic because that takes the attention away from each of us and our daily behaviour, which is more what will protect us or cause transmission,” she said.

Etches pointed to confusion around socialization linked to Ontario’s recent expansion of the limits to allow up to 50 people to gather indoors.

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It remains a high risk to gather with anyone outside an individual’s closed social circle of 10 people without physical distancing.

Ahead of the Civic Holiday long weekend in Ontario, Etches noted that outdoor gatherings with physical distancing carry a much lower risk than indoor parties.

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People tend to have an idea that the virus comes from people they don’t know, Etches said, but the risk of transmission is highest with people you’re socializing the closest with, especially in your own home.

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“This virus is tricky. You don’t always know if somebody close to you has it or not,” she said.

Etches did say OPH will be sending a letter with new instructions for businesses to help avoid potential outbreaks related to restaurants or other public-facing spaces. It will include messaging about the risks of lineups outside bars or other businesses where people are not maintaining proper distance.

Etches’ comments come as Ontario unveiled its back-to-school plan for September on Thursday, which will see elementary school students return to classrooms full-time with regular class sizes and high schoolers limited to class sizes of 15 on an alternating schedule.

She noted that she hadn’t had the chance to review Ontario’s framework in full, but said it seemed “in line” with the full return to school she had previously supported.

She and other health officials had advocated for full-time, in-person schooling in the fall as a “balance” between the risks to children’s health and the needs of the family.

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She noted that it is “not possible” to keep schools completely free of the coronavirus come September, but said that the degree to which schools and daycares will have to close due to outbreaks will be determined by how well controlled the virus is in the surrounding community.

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So she called on the adults in the city to get back to basics on flattening the curve. That means physical distancing, wearing a mask indoors, washing hands and staying home while sick.

“We’ve flattened the curve before and I know Ottawa has what it takes to do it again,” she said.