With Simcoe Muskoka heading into the Grey-Lockdown zone in the province’s COVID-19 response framework on March 1, the local health unit’s medical officer of health said in a briefing today that he’s received many messages of concern from residents and businesses impacted by repeated closures and restrictions.
“I have heard from many people who are concerned about the impact on people’s livelihood, on their businesses, and physical and mental wellbeing, and I sympathize with them. I know that this is incredibly difficult and I sincerely wish we were not in this level of restriction,” said Dr. Charles Gardner, the medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. “However, we are seeing increases of cases and outbreaks of the UK B.1.1.7 variant in Simcoe and Muskoka in workplaces, long-term care facilities, a child care centre, and an apartment building. Countries that have experienced high numbers of the variants of concern have then experienced a third wave of COVID-19 and we need to act early to prevent that from happening here.”
Muskoka now has eight such confirmed cases, with the remainder of the cases in Simcoe County. To date, 184 cases have tested positive for the UK B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant of concern in Simcoe Muskoka and another 290 cases have screened positive and are awaiting confirmatory testing. Simcoe Muskoka has the highest number of variants of concern in Ontario.
The UK variant is more contagious and has been identified in a number of outbreaks at long-term care homes, workplaces, and apartment complexes, which have spread not just among residents and staff members, but also to family members of staff. There have also been variant-of-concern cases arising in the community that are not linked to outbreaks or other confirmed cases.
More than 60 per cent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Simcoe Muskoka last week were identified as either the UK variant or a variant of concern. There has also been a rise in outbreaks, with eight more active outbreaks in the region within the past week compared to the week prior (22 vs. 14) including five more workplace outbreaks (12 vs. seven) with nine of the 12 active workplace outbreaks linked to a variant of concern.
“The history of what the UK variant can do is of concern to me,” said Dr. Gardner. “We know that it has caused a major wave in the UK, in Ireland, in Denmark… [leading to a surge] that was very difficult to control.”
He made a recommendation to the province that the region be placed under stronger controls, a decision that lies ultimately with the provincial government.
“I knew that the timing of our increase [in cases] really couldn’t be attributed to us coming out of shutdown. It was only a week in and really you need a couple of weeks before you would see that effect. I was more concerned just that the variant itself was having an impact. And I was concerned all the more that coming out of shutdown would further augment what we were seeing.”
The case count for Simcoe Muskoka for the most recent week (February 21 to 27) did drop 15 per cent over the week prior, from 276 in the week of February 14 to 233 last week. “That is some reassurance,” said Dr. Gardner, adding that it doesn’t lessen his concern about the variants and the potential for them to cause a surge in cases without these increased control measures.
Dr. Gardner acknowledged that the repeated shutdown and lockdown measures have been difficult for small businesses in particular, and that he’s heard reports that some businesses will refuse to comply with restrictions under the lockdown. The provincial government recently updated the framework to allow smaller retail businesses to remain open, but other service providers will be required to close.
“I’ve heard the concerns of those other service providers [like personal services and fitness centres] that feel they are not a risk to the community and are not being treated fairly,” said Dr. Gardner, adding that there have in the past been workplace outbreaks at restaurants and personal services businesses in the region. “I hear people’s concern about the impact on their work and on their lives.”
He said that the province’s framework doesn’t take the variants of concern into account, and that it would have been easier for everyone to adapt if Simcoe Muskoka had moved from the province-wide shutdown into the Grey-Lockdown zone rather than first into the Red-Control zone.
The continued restrictions are taking their toll and leading to frustration in even the most stalwart of residents. “We’re seeing very strong reaction from people who indicated that they’d been very supportive [of control measures] before,” said Dr. Gardner. “That is very worrisome to me.”
Dr. Gardner has again heard from politicians in Muskoka about splitting this area from Simcoe County for the purposes of COVID-19 restrictions given that cases in Muskoka have remained lower on a per capita basis than in Simcoe County for the duration of the pandemic.
“I’ve readily acknowledged the data difference. I’ve always been concerned about the potential to unwittingly encourage more traffic to Muskoka if Simcoe’s in a different situation from Muskoka, that it might lead to more transmission there… I’m left really contemplating carefully that perspective [of the argument for different measures in Muskoka],” he said.
There is nothing in the province’s COVID-19 response framework that would prevent travel, noted Dr. Gardner. “There isn’t anything that can be enforced that says you cannot travel,” he said. “There’s all the way through the framework a strong recommendation that people not travel… When there was the shutdown there was the enforceable stay-at-home order, and stay at home really would encompass therefore not travelling without an essential purpose. In theory, if you restrict access to services in an area that should discourage people from going to that area, so being in a more restrictive area in theory at least would make it less appealing for people to go there.”
Simcoe Muskoka’s move into the Grey-Lockdown zone is intended to be a short-term measure, although it’s not known how long it will last.
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