The medical officers of health for Toronto and Peel Region have written a letter to the province requesting that their respective municipalities remain in shutdown until at least March 9.
Toronto medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said COVID-19 variants pose a serious risk and as such restrictions should not be loosened for the time being.
“I have never been as worried about the future as I am today,” de Villa said during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
“The variants of concern mean we face a deceptively dangerous situation.
“Right now, the case counts don’t look so bad, they don’t sound bad, but today’s variant count is the tip of an iceberg. By the time the confirmed case counts are big enough to shock us, it will be too late to do anything.”
De Villa said there have been 56 confirmed cases of variants of concern in Toronto, 54 of which are the U.K. coronavirus strain and two are the Brazilian strain.
However, De Villa said more than five times that amount have screened positive for variants of concern and are currently undergoing further testing.
Both Toronto and Peel were expected to reenter the province’s coronavirus response framework next week, which, even at its most strict level (grey — lockdown) would have allowed for the loosening of some restrictions, including the opening of retail shops but with health measures in place.
De Villa said she and Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region’s medical officer of health, wrote a joint letter over the weekend to Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, requesting that any assessment to return to the framework be delayed.
Toronto faces the prospect of exponential growth from the more transmissible variants, she said, referencing what has been seen in other jurisdictions.
De Villa also said mobility data has shown that people are beginning to move around more despite the current stay-at-home order.
Toronto Mayor John Tory expressed support for De Villa’s calls, adding the focus for the time being should be on keeping schools open.
“(Toronto) Public Health has been clear that a safe reopening of schools and careful monitoring of the variants will require some time,” he said.
“I know extending the lockdown will cause continuing hurt for many businesses, but I also know that we have followed the public health advice throughout this pandemic so that we can keep as many people healthy as possible so that we can save as many lives as we possibly can.”
Tory said he wouldn’t want to see businesses reopen and then have to shut down again in a few weeks.
“With the promise of vaccinations upon us, we need to ensure that this lockdown that we’re presently in is the last one,” he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Loh said that although the original COVID-19 virus strain first detected in the community in 2020 is now declining, variant cases in the region are accelerating.
“Holding the status quo for just one incubation period, 14 days, will allow us to see better where the variant trends go and review any impact that school reopening might have on community contacts and transmission,” he said.
Ontario has said it will consult with all of the medical officers of health in each region before deciding where a community will placed in the tiered framework.
Health Minister Christine Elliott has said that no decisions have been made regarding the gradual reopening of hot spots.
York medical officer wants region moved to red zone
Meanwhile, the medical officer of health for York Region — which is expected to reenter the province’s coronavirus response framework next week — wants to see that municipality move into the red zone, one level short of a lockdown.
Dr. Karim Kurji said in a statement that variants must be monitored but noted that there hasn’t been “explosive growth” in York Region.
“We feel with aggressive case and contact management, interventions at the borders and the public’s help in following public health guidelines we have a reasonable handle on these cases,” Kurji said.
He also said that overall cases have been declining in York, as have the number of outbreaks in long-term care homes.
“We prefer to look at the whole community as our patient,” Kurji said.
“It is clear businesses are suffering greatly and with that comes loss of jobs and incomes, an important social determinant of health. We are seeing social isolation leading to mental illness.”
— With files from Gabby Rodrigues and The Canadian Press