Niagara may be in the red by next week, although Dr. Mustafa Hirji is not about to make that recommendation to the province.
He told The Local Monday he’s unsure whether his opinion will be sought by the province, which has a more aggressive approach to reopening than he would choose, before the expected announcement Friday.
“Being extra cautious would protect residents better,” he said.
Staying in the grey zone causes a lot of difficulty for some businesses, he said, but as mindful as he is of business owners and those out of work, he is concerned about reopening in the face of variants, which spread more quickly than COVID-19 and add to the potential for a third wave.
There are six cases of possible variants identified in Niagara, yet to be confirmed, he says, found in positive tests of people who have some connection to the GTA, either from travelling there or staying temporarily, before returning to Niagara, and spreading the infection to others. The testing will also confirm the kind of variants.
He also worries that people will see the red zone as a signal to let down their guard and resume socializing, he said.
His choice would be to see Niagara, along with other areas such as the GTA and Peel, continue to be locked down, until the spread of the variants can be better controlled.
While a third wave is not inevitable, the acting chief medical officer of health is saying measures must be taken to avoid it.
If Niagara moves from grey-lockdown to red, restaurants can open their dining rooms, to a limited capacity. Gyms and salons can also open.
Most of Niagara, including Niagara-on-the-Lake, has case numbers in the red zone, with some orange and yellow areas, he said, but while most of the trends are improving, there are other factors to consider, and reopening, with a threat of variants that spread quickly, could cause a spike in cases.
“That’s why I’m signalling that caution,” he said.
The number of outbreaks is still high, although coming down, and the impact they have on hospitals, hospital staff who could be otherwise available to work at vaccination clinics, and the strain on contact tracing to slow the spread are all factors that should be considered, he said, with “little room for error” if the transmission of variants start increasing.
While outbreaks in the fall were primarily due to long-term care home transmissions and younger people socializing with friends and work colleagues, those numbers have declined, and what he sees now are cases in the agricultural sector, mainly greenhouses. While not an expert, he adds, he would expect that the real push in that industry is now, and hopes those outbreaks will soon be under control.
If Niagara moves to the red zone, on top of provincial capacity limits, Hirji has already instituted restrictions on restaurants and retailers. Restaurants will only be allowed four people from the same household at one table, with some exceptions, as was the case in the fall.
Through no fault of restaurant owners, in-person dining is “inherently risky,” Hirji says, with people sitting close together, without masks. He described a situation in Niagara last fall, when three people became infected from being together at a bar, and then their activity, which included visiting other restaurants with friends, interaction with family and work places, and a visit to a long-term care home, created an outbreak of more than 30 people.
The restrictions he is imposing on restaurants, when they open, were shown to work when they were first instituted in November, he said, leading to a reduction in the spread of COVID outbreaks, while still allowing dining rooms to remain open.
Also included in the local restrictions, which came into effect this week, Niagara is following Hamilton and Halton in requiring better policing of compliance with issues such as screening staff, controlling crowding in stores, having a safety plan readily available, and enforcing proper mask-wearing of customers.
Failure to comply with any of these measures could bring a fine from $750 up to $5,000.
If, despite those extra measures, Niagara sees a spike in cases, the province’s “emergency brake” is designed to quickly put the area back into lock-down.
“Hopefully they would listen to us and our concerns.”
Hirji pointed to several other European countries where aggressive measures have worked, including Germany, which remains in a “hard lockdown, with schools closed, travel restricted, and no curbside pickup allowed.
While he isn’t suggesting such restrictions in Niagara, he is advocating continued measures to hold off the variants, and public vigilance.
But “the real game-changer” in preventing the spread of variants, a third wave and “nightmare scenarios” that could follow, he said, will be the arrival of vaccine and the vaccination roll-out that will soon follow.