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Ontario's COVID-19 modelling has a best case scenario — but it requires 'enhanced' measures

 Dr. Peter Donnelly, President and CEO of Public Health Ontario, addresses a media briefing on COVID-19 provincial modelling in Toronto, April 3, 2020.
Dr. Peter Donnelly, President and CEO of Public Health Ontario, addresses a media briefing on COVID-19 provincial modelling in Toronto, April 3, 2020.

The COVID-19 modelling released by Ontario officials on Friday shows a best-case scenario where thousands more deaths can be prevented, but it means implementing even further distancing measures than what’s already in place.

This includes closing more businesses, keeping a so-called “ring of steel” around vulnerable centres such as long-term care homes, and making increased use of technology such as cell phone alerts.

It also requires building up a “small army” of staff to do contact tracing, the resource-intensive work of tracking down all the recent contacts of someone who’s tested positive for the virus.

“We need to bear down heavily on this disease now, because it will save lives,” said Peter Donnelly, president and CEO of Ontario Public Health. “It will allow our healthcare system to cope. And ultimately, it will be the best way to help our economy bounce back.”

Under current measures, the modelling says Ontario may see 1,600 deaths by the end of April and 15,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic. This is down from the 6,000 deaths in April and 100,000 deaths in total that could have happened with no measures.

But the modelling also showed a scenario of “full future intervention” where there are just 200 deaths by the end of April and as few as 3,000 deaths overall.

To get there, the province would have to implement a number of “enhanced measures.” One of them, reducing the number of essential workplaces allowed to stay open, has already been announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

As of Saturday at midnight, the list of businesses allowed to stay open will grow smaller, and some such as pet stores, hardware stores and office suppliers will have to move to delivery or curbside pickup. Fewer construction projects will be allowed to proceed, and no new residential construction can start.

“My government is prepared to take every step possible,” Ford said. “We’re announcing the closure of many more sectors of the economy. I can tell you this was no easy task. I know that businesses are struggling to stay afloat through these rough waters. But lives are on my mind. And we must take this action now.”

Other items listed in the presentation include handing out more fines for non-compliance with COVID-19 measures, and expanding guidance on keeping a two-metre distance away from other people, such as in grocery stores.

Donnelly said a top priority is protection for particularly vulnerable people such as the elderly and the homeless.

“The concept of a ring of steel around long term care homes is important,” he said.

“As we have tragically seen, if you get even one case in a long-term care home, it is very easy for it to spread very quickly and to bring about many deaths, so we need to use our testing strategically to protect the elderly and the vulnerable.”

He did not clarify what additional measures a “ring of steel” might mean, though Ontario has already brought in emergency measures to maintain staffing levels at homes and restrict residents from leaving a home for visits with family and friends.

Health officials say there are now outbreaks at 32 care homes in Ontario; one of them, Pinecrest care home in Bobcaygeon, has seen 20 residents die of COVID-19.

Donnelly also said he applauds communities “who have proactively moved to house the homeless in accommodation, which may prove life-saving.” He noted that First Nations communities are also looking at measures to prevent overcrowding, and some are considering entry restrictions to their community.

A presentation by Donnelly also mentions increased use of technology to “reinforce self-isolation,” such as alerts. It did not provide more details, though the province has previously used the wireless emergency alert system (most commonly used for Amber Alerts) to remind residents to self-isolate for two weeks if they’ve returned from travel.

None of the officials could say how long these measures will need to be in place, saying it will simply depend on how the situation plays out over the next few weeks.

However, Donnelly said health authorities are hard at work preparing for what will be crucial in managing COVID-19 over the long run: aggressive contact-tracing of people who test positive for the virus. It requires extensive staff resources to follow up with everyone who came into contact with the positive case.

“In jurisdictions elsewhere in the world that have done particularly well, this has been very important,” he said. “It’s about breaking the chain (of transmission) by assertively chasing down cases and their contacts. There is a small army of federal employees, medical students and others being assembled to actually address this issue.”

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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