Although the province has indicated that Peel (Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon) could, along with Toronto and York, be released from the current stay-at-home order as soon as Feb. 22, Peel’s top doctor is sounding the alarm about the potential negative impact of a hurried reopening.
At a Feb. 10 press conference, Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s Medical Officer of Health, said that while he supports the resumption of in-person learning throughout the region on Feb. 16, he’s concerned about the province’s plan to begin reopening some sectors of the economy shortly after schools welcome students back into classrooms.
“My support for school reopening was based on current transmission patterns that suggest the benefit of having children back in class for their learning, their socialization, their well-being and development currently outweighs the risks of COVID-19, which can be further mitigated through the precautionary measures that are being put in place,” Loh told reporters.
“However, my support for school reopening was also based on a recommendation that other public health measures remain in place for at least two weeks after reopening through the end of February, to observe any changes in impacts and interactions, especially with variants of concern in our community.”
Although local leaders expect Peel to re-enter the grey/lockdown category on Feb. 22, the province will allow limited in-person shopping in all retail settings at 25 per cent capacity in the region. Ski Hills will also be allowed to open and libraries will be permitted to allow residents to use computers and photocopiers.
Should Peel re-enter the “grey zone,” gyms and salons will not be permitted to reopen and restaurants will not be able to offer any dine-in services. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to no more than 10 people and residents will still be required to wear masks or face-coverings inside public indoor areas.
But even though many public health measures will remain in place, Loh says the region needs time to examine the impact of schools reopening before opening more businesses, especially with new variants of COVID-19 circulating in the community.
On Feb. 11, the Region of Peel said that an individual at a Peel District School Board school screened positive for a COVID-19 variant of concern (VOC). As of now, public health officials are sounding the alarm about three current VOCs–believed to be more transmissible–that were originally detected in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
At the Feb. 10 press conference, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said that as of Feb. 9, 23 VOCs have been discovered in Peel, with 60 possible more cases under investigation.
Loh said that while numbers are dropping across the region, local hospitals could still end up overwhelmed if transmission picks up again–particularly with the new variants in play.
“While I am hopeful that our trends will remain favourable, I know that our hospitals still continue to contend with significant challenges. The arrival of variants in our community also reminds me, as we have seen time and time again throughout this pandemic, that our choices matter,” Loh said.
Emphasizing that reopening parts of the economy alongside schools is risky and runs counter to his advice, Loh said that a gradual reopening will protect both individuals and businesses, as many are suffering due to repeated closures.
“We must move gradually. There are variants in our midst which have the potential to reverse everything that we have all worked hard and sacrificed so much for and we know how this story goes,” Loh told reporters, adding that in November 2020, Peel was at the same daily average of new cases as it is now.
“Over two weeks in the fall, that increased 50 per cent. That was just two weeks and that was without variants that are more transmissible and with a community that was not under a stay-at-home order. Reopening is not a formula for success. It is a formula for a third wave. I say that in feeling for our business owners, as I know that a third shutdown to save lives would permanently destroy livelihoods in our community.”
At the press conference, Loh suggested that it might be best to wait for warmer weather and a more fulsome rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, of which Canada is now expecting a greater influx, before beginning to reopen the economy.
“We’ve come so far and what we do with these next few weeks as schools reopen could mean the difference between months more of agony versus a successful vaccination ramp-up and economic reopening with confidence and an exit from this nightmare,” he said.