Last week Niagara’s chief medical officer of health was afraid provincial lifting of restrictions coming next week are too much, too soon, ahead of the original timetable, and he’s not yet been convinced otherwise.
While it’s very good news that hospitalizations and intensive care admissions from COVID-19 have come down, “I’m mindful that they are still relatively high compared to historical levels — at least half as high as the peaks of our previous waves,” Dr. Mustafa Hirji told The Local Tuesday.
“As well, both the Ontario science table and Public Health Ontario warn of infections possibly resurging or plateauing at a high level, meaning that hospitalizations would remain high or go up again. That resurgence of plateauing wasn’t predicted to become apparent until late February or early March.”
Hirji says he supports reopening, “but on the original timetable set by the province to ensure trends continue to be positive before we take next steps.” The provincial timetable was fast-tracked to March 1, with restrictions originally expected to be lifted March 14.
“I also strongly believe that a faster reopening should be coupled with a strengthened proof-of-vaccination requirement that requires a third dose, three to six months after the second dose,” Hirji says.
“Booster doses greatly reduce the risk of infection spreading, and would enable higher risk public places to reopen with much lower risk of infection continuing to spread. I think that would best enable a safe reopening on a more aggressive timetable.”
Last week some regional councillors admonished Hirji for going “above and beyond” provincial COVID restrictions, and tried to pin him down on whether he was willing to go along with the lifting of restrictions to come next week.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero and Niagara-on-the-Lake Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa, have both supported him in his efforts to keep residents safe and healthy during the pandemic.
However, Disero says she has some of the same questions as other regional councillors.
Hirji told councillors last Thursday there are currently two local orders remaining under Section 22, and two “letters of instruction,” adding another level of protocols specific to Niagara on top of the provincial regulations. Some of the limitations impact restaurants and bars, others sports and recreation facilities, and add proof of vaccination requirement to use those facilities and for municipal employees who work there.
Some councillors made it clear they don’t support anything other than provincial restrictions, and asked when they might end.
Lincoln Mayor Sandra Easton said she was concerned about the extra level of regulations in Niagara, and suggested public health should instead be “looking at other ways to offer levels of caution than to continually make rules that limit people.”
“I believe decisions around our orders and letter of instruction should be based on the data,” Hirji told The Local. “I have made no decision one way or the other, and am leaving options open because the data should guide the decision. As well, I would like to see the province’s final regulatory language for March 1 and beyond before making any decisions on which orders and instructions would still make sense for March 1 and beyond.”
Regional CAO Ron Tripp said regional restrictions would be discussed in a meeting with municipal CAOs, including looking at how long they will remain in place.
That meeting was taking place Tuesday.
“As municipalities operate many sports and recreational facilities, the CAOs wish to share feedback on how implementing the Letter of Instruction on those settings has worked so that we can advise on work-arounds and take back consideration for possible amendments,” Hirji told The Local Tuesday, before the meeting. “I don’t believe the meeting is around when the requirement might be lifted per se. As we reassess the Letter of Instruction based on data this week, and the new provincial regulations, we hope to communicate any changes by Friday or Monday morning at the latest.”
On March 1, the province is expected to lift capacity limits in all indoor public settings, and proof of vaccination requirements will no longer be required. Other protective measures, such as mask requirements and screening of patrons, are expected to remain in place.
The province clearly allows local public health units to deploy regional responses based on local health indicators, Hirji told councillors last week, explaining there is an expectation that health units will supplement and enhance certain measures based on local risk, and that is occurring in other public health units across the province, not just in Niagara.
There is a varying amount of risk in other areas, and the province continues to say “there is ongoing value in local measures,” he said.
Disero said Easton raised the possibility of less limiting alternative measures, in response to the emails and comments from residents putting a “growing pressure on regional colleagues.”
If there are going to be continuing restrictions in Niagara outside of provincial regulations, Disero added, she agrees with regional councillors who are calling for additional resources to help municipalities pay with the increased costs, including bylaw enforcement.
“If there are going to be local restrictions, we need as a region to be compensating municipalities for the extra resources required,” she said, but added that depends on what happens both at the provincial and regional level.
“We have to wait to see what happens, what the numbers are, what is recommended, and go from there.”
Part of the discussion at regional council came about because some employees have been terminated for not being vaccinated, but that hasn’t been necessary in Niagara-on-the-Lake, she said.
The comments also indicate “some councillors want everything opened up, while others hope Niagara can get there in some way, without restrictions.”
Some regional councillors are concerned that as municipalities move toward normal, there could be outrage over an extra local level of measures, Disero said. “We’ll have to be cautious, and we’ll need to talk about who is going to pay for them. There were some valid points made.”
“I’m just waiting to see what he recommends,” she added. “Dr. Hirji may just be following the provincial level. I’m not going to not support something that hasn’t happened yet. I’ll wait to see what happens, and take it from there.”
At the least, she hopes mask-wearing requirements will stay in place.
When pushed by one councillor who was hoping for a guarantee from Hirji that he would not impose extra measures on Niagara when restrictions are lifted across Ontario next week, the acting chief medical officer of health said the province asks public health units to consider the local context regarding restrictions, and he would be making assessments and decisions at that time. “I can’t make a promise one way or another,” he said.
Other councillors questioned whether regional council has the ability to override the special orders set by Hirji, or whether they could vote to end them.
CAO Tripp told councillors that public health decisions are at the sole discretion of the chief medical officer, and councillors do not have a say in what restrictions are in place or when they will end.
Port Colborne Coun. Barbara Butters asked her colleagues to be patient, and put public health ahead of politics. Decisions are not being made “on a whim,” she said.
“One person needs to make these decisions, because if it was up to this group, everything would be so-called back to normal.”
If that happens too soon, she said, the results “could be catastrophic.”
St. Catharines Coun. Laura Ip also backed Hirji’s decisions, saying she was embarrassed by some of councillors’ comments.
“What I know for sure is that no one on this council is qualified to be making any of the decisions that any of our medical officers of health have made,” she said, thanking Hirji for his “difficult decisions.”
Gary Zalepa, NOTL’s regional representative, was chairing last Thursday’s meeting at the request of Chair Jim Bradley, and lamented that as chair he was unable to offer any comments.
If he had, it would have been firmly in support of Hirji, whose job it is to make such decisions. Zalepa said he appreciated the comments made by Butters and Ip.
He was especially disappointed that some councillors still do not understand the governance of public health, including the role of the chief medical officer of health, which is set by the province.
“It’s a very clear structure,” he said, with the medical officer of health making decisions independent from council. “It was very clear some councillors would have reviewed that.”
They do, however, have the right to ask questions, which allowed information to come out for the benefit of the public as well, who seem also to be confused, judging by the emails to regional councillors, “asking us to tell Dr. Hirji what to do. It doesn’t work that way. I have to explain it’s not within my ability to do that.”
Hirji was hired for his scientific expertise, says Zalepa, “That’s why we put him in that position, to make sure we have good decisions. I will continue to follow his advice and to continue supporting him. That’s the proper thing to do.”