After a weekend of criticism and even threats to his safety, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s acting chief medical officer of health has tweeted his thanks for the many emails and messages of support he’d received, which he said had been “humbling.”
But in an interview with The Local, and before regional councillors at a public health committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, although he voiced his thanks and appreciation for the support, he was more anxious to talk about Niagara moving into the grey zone this week, as well as his goals and concerns for the future.
Although he said he was not targeting restaurants with his recommendation to the province last week that Niagara go into the grey zone, they remain closed, and that’s where the anger and confusion has been coming from.
He said he agrees with restaurant owners that the venue itself doesn’t spread COVID, but the activity inherent in dining out with friends and family does.
In the fall, when he instituted a Section 22 order that restricted restaurant patrons to members of one household, numbers came down. The recent provincial lockdown, which included restaurant closures, also brought numbers down, as did the lockdown last spring.
Each time, reopenings were not sustainable, and the last thing he wants is for the current move to colour-
coded zoning to lead to another lockdown.
He told councillors when restaurants reopen, he likely will consider the Section 22 order again, given that it worked well in the fall.
Although he did recommend to the province that Niagara should be in grey-lockdown, he said he can’t be sure how much weight was put on his recommendation.
He was part of a 15-minute virtual meeting held last Friday morning between the province and a few public health officials representing regions in similar situations, he explained, when they each had an opportunity to voice their positions. In the time allotted to him, he cautioned that Niagara should stay in grey or a stay-at-home order, that it didn’t make sense to open up now, as the region is just getting on top of numbers that last month had been escalating.
In the announcement that came later Friday, provincial decisions about some of the regions represented in that phone call aligned with what public health officials were recommending, as with the Niagara move to grey, and in others, the outcome was different, he said.
While it’s typically expected to be two weeks before more changes are announced by the province, that a change will be announced one week and enacted the next, it’s “plausible” another change could be made as early as this week, he said.
Last week, some areas of the region were posting numbers that were in grey, and this week, although the numbers are falling, they are still high. Tuesday afternoon, there were 34 outbreaks in the region, down from 40 the week before, occurring in long-term care, retirement and group homes, workplaces and the community.
There are still about 20 new cases a day, he said.
While those numbers are headed in the right direction, they are still higher than they were this summer.
During a public health committee meeting Tuesday afternoon, Hirji spoke about the success so far with vaccinating residents in long-term care homes and high-risk retirement homes.
With more vaccine arriving, Niagara is planning to resume its vaccinations for high-risk long-term care, retirement home and hospital staff.
While that was the good news, he warned that with variants of concern in the GTA, allowing the virus to spread more quickly, it will become more difficult than ever to control the spread.
There are no variants of concern in Niagara, but that’s not likely to persist because of the number of visitors from the GTA and other areas, such as the number of travellers over the long weekend in Niagara Falls. Those situations “are not going to serve us well in keeping variants out,” he said.
But the “hottest topic” to be addressed at the meeting was the reopening the province announced, “somewhat surprisingly,” transitioning to the colour-coded zones.
For much of January, he said, Niagara was one of the hardest-hit regions, near the top of the province with numbers of cases, and decisions were made based on the still-high number of cases.
The challenge is trying to protect the population and at the same time allow the economy to recover, he said.
“The growing consensus is that managing the health side tends to manage the economic side,” he explained, pointing to other countries where managing COVID with shutdowns has led to sustainable reopenings.
He said the concern is now, with the number of cases, there is no room for error, with another increase in cases possibly leading to another lockdown.
His advice to the province is based on the goal of a sustained reopening, “so we never have to go through another lockdown from COVID.”
Several regional councillors on the public health committee asked questions about specific business reopening and closures, so they could pass that information on to their constituents, about vaccinations, and about how best to avoid the dreaded third wave that could be coming.
Regional councillors were also asking to be better informed so they could have better answers for residents and business owners.
Many of the regional councillors who offered their support joined the likes of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who both condemned online threats directed at Hirji, which began Friday.
The threats appear to have come from hospitality workers and restaurant owners, on the United Hospitality Niagara Facebook page, although the administrator has objected to those characterizations.
The Niagara Regional Police said they launched an investigation into the threats.
“I am outraged to hear threats have been made against Dr. @MustafaHirji, the Medical Officer of Health for Niagara Region,” Trudeau tweeted late Saturday night. “This rhetoric is unacceptable, and I strongly condemn it. He, and all public health officials working to keep us safe, deserve nothing but our sincere thanks.”
Politicians, including Regional Chair Jim Bradley, physicians, and the Ontario Medical Association have all condemned the threats. CBC did a brief story Monday evening on its national news show, mentioning that it’s not only Niagara’s top public health official, but others across the country who have also been threatened following decisions they have made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who made the decision to put Niagara in grey, supported by the provincial cabinet, tweeted “there is absolutely no place for these kinds of threats in Ontario. Cut it out. Our health officials have only one priority: the health and well-being of their communities. We’re lucky to have such dedicated public health officials in Ontario.”
A public health announcement released this weekend said, in part, “many people and business owners are struggling significantly through the pandemic and the social restrictions that have been necessary at times, and this weighs heavily on Dr. Hirji when advising the province on Niagara’s situation.
“However, Dr. Hirji also agrees with the consensus of public health experts that reopening the economy too quickly right now risks a devastating third wave, and third lockdown which could do even more harm to Niagara’s residents and business owners.”
It went on to say that Hirji “attempts to read all feedback, both positive and negative. However, he hopes debate on this important issue will remain civil as we all try and get through this pandemic together.”