Ottawa’s top doctor has asked Ontario officials to move the region into the strictest level on the provincial COVID-19 framework as surging levels of the virus threaten to overwhelm the city’s health-care system.
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, said Wednesday that she has asked her counterparts at the provincial level to shift the nation’s capital into the grey-lockdown zone from the red-control level before the upcoming long weekend.
The move, which rests in the hands of the province, would end indoor dining and put tighter limits on outdoor gatherings.
Etches said Wednesday that the COVID-19 situation in Ottawa has become dire, adding that entering the province’s red zone on March 19 failed to curb the spread of the virus locally.
Ottawa Public Health reported 117 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and one new death related to the virus.
The COVID-19 weekly incidence rate in Ottawa now stands at 91.6 cases per 100,000 people and the coronavirus positivity rate has jumped to 5.8 per cent, both now more than twice where they were when the city entered the red zone just 12 days ago.
OPH says almost 600 COVID-19 cases in Ottawa have been flagged as variants of concern or mutations, with four deaths linked to such cases. Some 43.3 per cent of new cases in Ottawa are now flagged as likely variants, according to provincial data.
There are 39 people currently in hospital locally with the virus, 11 of whom are in the intensive care unit.
Speaking alongside Etches Wednesday was Dr. Stéphane Roux, chief of staff with Hôpital Montfort, who said critical care capacity in Ottawa is “pretty full up right now.”
Read more: COVID-19 hospitalizations surging in Ottawa
He said Ottawa-area hospitals are meeting with each other on a regular basis to figure out ways to share staffing and bed capacity where it’s needed in the region.
Contact tracing in Ottawa is also failing to keep up, as the average confirmed case these days has roughly four high-risk contacts associated with it. Etches noted that this means that Wednesday’s report alone has generated almost 500 high-risk contacts for OPH tracers to track down.
A majority of new cases locally are in people aged 20 to 39, Etches noted. She added that a person in their 40s in Ottawa also died from COVID-19 this past week, highlighting the threat the virus poses to people of all ages — especially those not yet protected by the vaccine.
“COVID-19 affects all of us. This virus doesn’t discriminate,” she told reporters.
“The vaccine hasn’t arrived in time to outpace the growth of the virus in our community. We are at a point we have never seen before in this pandemic.”
A major source of transmission is people letting their guard down while socializing, Etches said. She highlighted after-work gatherings, contact sports and backyard barbecues as blind spots.
The virus can still spread outdoors if people aren’t wearing masks or keeping two metres apart, Etches noted.
But if Ottawa does move into the grey zone, outdoor gatherings will still be permitted up to 10 people. Weddings and other religious events held outdoors can host up to 50 people in the grey zone.
Asked whether she felt the grey-lockdown measures were strict enough to prevent transmission, Etches acknowledged “they might not be.”
“And that’s why I’m asking people to do their part,” she added.
Etches urged residents not to gather in person over the Easter long weekend and said she specifically asked the province to implement lockdown measures before Friday because holiday weekends during the pandemic have typically preceded a “bump up” in COVID-19 levels.
While the short notice can be difficult for businesses to adapt to on short notice, such as restaurants who have purchased supplies anticipating long-weekend crowds, Etches said OPH has been working with local business groups to spread the word about possible closures in hopes of mitigating the impact.
Premier Doug Ford also said Wednesday that he will make an announcement about possible restrictions coming to the province on Thursday morning, citing rising ICU levels in Ontario hospitals as a concern.
Etches said she’s waiting to see what restrictions Ontario will enact but did not preclude instituting her own class orders to shore up any gaps she might see in the provincial response.
Etches did say Wednesday that she does not support closing schools to in-person learning at this time.