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"Concerning" COVID-19 trends could halt reopening: DeMille

Rise in cases at local and provincial level points to possibility of reimposing public health measures heading into winter, says medical officer of health.
Janet DeMille 2
Dr. Janet DeMille is the medical officer of health for the Thunder Bay District. (File photo)

THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay’s medical officer of health says while COVID-19 remains under control in the region, an upward trend in cases both locally and provincially raises the possibility that public health measures will need to be tightened heading into the winter.

The Thunder Bay District Health Unit recorded its first COVID-19 death in nearly five months on Thursday, while four other residents were in hospital with the virus, one in the ICU.

Along with provincial trends, medical officer of health Dr. Janet DeMille said that’s cause for some concern.

For now, she said, the district is still “doing well” in managing the pandemic.

“What I’m more concerned about is what I’m seeing in other parts of the province,” she said in an interview Thursday. “We noted the ministry reported a higher case number today than we’ve had recently, and over the last week or week-and-a-half we’ve seen upward trends.”

Ontario reported 642 new cases Thursday, the highest single-day total in over a month, while its seven-day average has also been going up.

That led the provincial government to announce a pause in its reopening plan on Wednesday, cancelling the lifting of capacity limits in higher-risk indoor venues like night clubs.

DeMille, who has voiced discomfort with some timelines in the government's plan, said the natural rise in cases as people spend more time indoors could require re-imposing some restrictions over the winter.

“We need to as a province and a community find the right balance between measures and allowing ourselves to have as many normal activities as we can,” she said. “It’s going to be trickier to find that balance over the coming months.”

“When I discuss with my colleagues, I think we’re seeing what appears to be significant resurgence in some communities. I note in particular in the north, we have Sudbury, and Algoma does appear to be having higher case numbers as well. I think that overall is concerning.”

Public Health Sudbury and Districts is currently reporting 270 active cases, including 15 outbreaks. That's led the public health unit to re-impose tighter restrictions on non-essential services like restaurants, gyms, and casinos.

That approach of public health measures imposed regionally or locally, rather than provincially, is being favoured by the province going forward, DeMille said.

As medical officer of health, DeMille has the power to impose public health measures in the district or more specific areas, by issuing letters of instruction under the Reopening Ontario Act, or Section 22 orders under the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

In February, DeMille recommended the closure of local schools during a serious COVID-19 spike, but most restrictions have previously come from Queen's Park, often to the frustration of local leaders.

If local trends continued to worsen, DeMille suggested one logical action could be bringing back capacity limits in venues like theatres, sports facilities, and restaurants, which were removed in October by the provincial government.

For now, though, she said it remains a hypothetical question.

“At this time, I’m not seeing the need to implement those stronger measures,” she said. “If we continue to do well, we can avoid additional measures, but I think it’s a tool we could use on a temporary basis if the case numbers start to go up.”

DeMille also voiced a note of optimism about the COVID-19 situation in the longer term, saying she anticipates the likely approval of vaccinations for children 5 to 11, and of booster shots for more adults, will make the virus easier to manage.

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