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Ottawa’s top doctor hopes upcoming COVID-19 shutdown could be the last one

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's chief medical officer of health, said COVID-19 vaccines could protect vulnerable populations enough to remove the need for further lockdowns after the upcoming provincewide shutdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Ottawa’s medical officer of health said Thursday that she hopes the upcoming provincewide shutdown could be the last of its kind in the nation’s capital as COVID-19 vaccines increasingly protect the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Premier Doug Ford and senior ministers announced Thursday afternoon that the entire province will enter a 28-day “emergency brake” shutdown on Saturday at 12:01 a.m.

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New limitations will prohibit both indoor and patio dining at restaurants, force the closure of gyms and put tighter caps on the number of people allowed inside grocery stores and other shops.

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Ford also asked residents to limit their trips outside the home to essential purposes only.

The move comes a day after Ottawa’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, asked the province to move the city into the grey-lockdown zone as the levels of COVID-19 threaten to overwhelm the city’s health-care system and contact tracing capacities.

Read more: Gripped by third COVID-19 wave, will new restrictions rescue Ontario?

Ottawa Public Health reported 116 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and one new death related to the virus. Overall levels of COVID-19 in the city have recently hit an all-time high during the pandemic, Etches said Thursday, citing monitoring data in the city’s wastewater system.

There are 40 people in hospital with COVID-19 in Ottawa, 13 of whom are in the intensive care unit, as doctors in the city have said the local health-care system is near overcapacity. Their concerns mirror those of doctors across the province.

Etches told reporters Thursday that she hopes the 28-day shutdown will be sufficient enough time for Ottawa’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts to reach more people in the city’s most vulnerable age groups.

She said the city has seen strong vaccine uptake above the goal of 75 per cent of people in the city’s long-term care homes, retirement homes and residents aged 80 and older.

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As the city moves to vaccinate residents over 70 in community clinics and then into 60-plus and 50-plus, Etches said the protection levels for vulnerable adults will be sufficient to alleviate pressure on the city’s health-care system as younger residents are less likely to develop serious complications from COVID-19.

While previous lockdowns have resulted in only temporary recovery before a resurgent wave of the virus, Etches said the city is in position to put an end to restrictions after the latest shutdown.

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“This is different this time because we have the vaccination program,” she said.

“We just need a bit more time to get through the age groups… then, we should not need this kind of lockdown ever again.”

She cited Israel and the United Kingdom as case studies where vaccine protection allowed for lockdowns to be lifted.

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Ottawa received good news on the COVID-19 vaccine front Thursday with a provincial announcement that 34 pharmacies in the area will begin administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to residents aged 55 and older as early as Saturday.

Anthony Di Monte, the head of Ottawa’s vaccine distribution task force, also said Thursday that the city is set to receive a “bonus” shipment of 11,000 AstraZeneca vaccines in the days ahead.

This supply will be allocated to family physicians and community health centres, he said.

While Ottawa has had a hold this week on new vaccination bookings at community clinics, Di Monte said he expects more appointments to be available “soon” as the city receives a fresh supply of vaccines.

Stay safe over the long weekend, officials urge

Ottawa officials speaking Thursday urged residents to respect Ontario’s new directives and not gather with friends or family in person over the Easter long weekend.

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Keith Egli, chair of the Ottawa Board of Health, asked residents to cancel any plans they might have made with people outside their household for the upcoming weekend, arguing that a backyard barbecue is “not worth putting yourself or others at risk.”

Read more: Making Easter plans? Here’s what happened to COVID-19 cases after past holidays

Mayor Jim Watson urged residents to order takeout to support local restaurants this weekend, noting that many have stocked up their inventory in anticipation of serving patrons on patios in the warm weather.

He also said he spoke with Gatineau, Que., Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin on Thursday and both agreed to encourage their residents to avoid any unnecessary interprovincial travel across the Ottawa River during the lockdown.

The Outaouais region was also placed into lockdown this week amid surging COVID-19 levels in Gatineau.

Read more: Here’s what’s open and closed in Ottawa over the Easter long weekend

Watson and other officials acknowledged that the prospect of yet another wave of restrictions comes as residents, and especially frontline health workers, are exhausted from more than a year of the pandemic.

But he urged residents to redouble their efforts now, even admitting that he had let his guard down in recent weeks.

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“We’re all tired. We want this to be over with. But we have to call on the best instincts of our fellow citizens to start and to continue following the advice of our medical professionals,” he said.

“There’s not a Plan B in terms of being the coronavirus. It’s pretty simple. It’s washing your hands, it’s physical distancing, it’s staying in your household, it’s wearing a mask. And then it’s getting a vaccine.”

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