Although the province has decided Niagara could be ready to have its lockdown lifted as soon as next Tuesday, Feb. 16, there are concerns closer to home that it might be too much, too soon.
The province announced Monday it is taking a regional approach to reopening, moving back to colour-coded categories, with a new framework that includes some differences in restrictions.
The three areas that had their stay-at-home order lifted this week are moving into the least restrictive green zone. While there are predictions that Niagara might be headed to red, after hearing the provincial plan, Dr. Mustafa Hirji told The Local he would advise the region be placed in the grey-lockdown category.
The acting medical officer of health says the province has promised consultation with regional public health units before lifting the stay-at-home order for the majority of Ontario regions next week, and Hirji fears anything less restrictive than grey would threaten the advances against the pandemic made in Niagara since the Dec. 26 lockdown.
Under the new restrictions, the grey zone would allow non-essential retailers to open for in-person shopping, with a capacity limited to 25 per cent, while pharmacies, grocery and convenience stores can remain open with 50 per cent of regular indoor capacity.
Under the former grey restrictions, indoor gatherings were limited to members of the same household, but Hirji said early this week he had no details about what to expect for Niagara. He was hoping to have those details later this week, to prepare for next week’s anticipated lifting of the stay-at-home order.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said Monday people should continue to limit close contact to immediate households, and stay at home except for essential reasons. That came with warnings that although “variants of concern” are so far present in a small number of areas, that could change.
Hirji says the “unfortunate number of people dying” in Niagara in recent weeks is a direct result of the large increase in the number of new infections in January, and is now coming down, but when there were large numbers of people contracting the coronavirus, with daily new cases in the high 20s and 30s, the region struggled to keep up with important contact tracing.
Although those numbers are beginning to decrease, they remain a concern, he says.
“I think we’re not so much a hot spot now. Things are starting to get better,” but he adds, with reopening, there is a possibility things could get worse.
Hirji is most concerned that according to the current provincial plan, Niagara will reopen a week before Toronto, Peel and York Regions, and during that time, residents of those regions, tired of the lockdown, will visit Niagara and bring more cases of COVID-19 with them. ”We saw that as early as March of last year,” he says, and he fears we could see it again next week.
As Ontario moves back to colour-coded regions, the province says the plan includes an “emergency brake,” which will allow it to move any region experiencing increased infections back to the grey-lockdown zone.
To acknowledge those who have died from COVID-19, and in sympathy for their families, Niagara-on-the-Lake has lowered its flag at the town hall, and many Niagara municipalities are following suit. NOTL made that decision last March, and doesn’t intend to return it to full staff until the dying stops, says Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
Unlike the province, Hirji doesn’t release the number of people dying on a daily basis in Niagara, but the total number from the beginning of the pandemic to early this week was nearing the 350 mark. By the beginning of December, 87 people in Niagara had died after being infected by the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, and by the end of that month, the number of deaths was up 142.
During that time, as the number of community cases from household social gatherings increased among young people, likely causing the spread of infections and deaths of residents in long-term care, the province delayed sending some of its limited vaccine supply to the region, as it prioritized long-term care homes in other areas of the province. Instead, Hirji says, the province should have looked at all regions and their long-term care homes as priorities, and shipped the vaccine accordingly.
The good news is all long-term care residents in Niagara have received their first vaccination dose, and by the end of this week, should have their second.
Hirji says when it’s time for public health to move out into the community for vaccinations, locations have been identified, including in Niagara-on-the-Lake, but the region won’t release the details until the dates have been set to deliver doses. With the number of staff available, once that begins, there will likely be one to three clinics scheduled every day, possibly one clinic every two weeks in some of the smaller municipalities, to allow for staff to visit all 12 municipalities, and more often in the larger urban areas. He hopes by late spring to early summer, vaccinations will also be available at local pharmacies and primary health care clinics, but none of those plans can be made until Ontario, and Niagara, begin to see the arrival of more vaccine.
The fewer community outbreaks there are at that time, the more staff will be available for vaccinations, he adds.