Peel top doctor suggests building relief policies into Ontario pandemic framework

Ontario Premier Doug Ford tours a lab at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research to see COVID-19 research in Toronto on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO - Making paid sick days and relief for businesses kick in when regions are placed in certain tiers of Ontario's pandemic restrictions system could help mitigate a third wave, the top doctor for a COVID-19 hot spot said Tuesday.

Dr. Lawrence Loh, the chief medical officer of health for Peel Region, said resistance to strict public health measures often stems from lack of relief, and that could be addressed in policy.

The province should consider looking at how supports could be part of its restrictions system, he said, suggesting that could help residents better follow pandemic rules.

"If the issue is that you don't want to do (paid sick leave) on a permanent policy basis, then maybe within a certain zone or within a certain colour, then you actually put that in there. That's one thing that could be looked at," Loh said at a discussion hosted by the Ontario Medical Association.

He noted that "a lot of the disquiet among businesses" that have suffered during shutdowns comes from lack of relief, suggesting that could be brought into the framework on a sliding scale based on the level of restrictions for a community.

A spokesman for the Health Ministry said residents could apply for funds available through a federal sick leave policy, and that provincial grants were available to businesses seeking relief.

David Jensen also noted that local medical officers of health can introduce orders to target specific issues in their regions.

The Ontario Medical Association has called on the province to maintain, and in some cases tighten, COVID-19 restrictions in light of more infectious variants spreading in the province.

Association president Dr. Samantha Hill reiterated the group's concerns about the variants on Tuesday, saying the more contagious strains need to be considered in the province's pandemic response.

"The government framework developed last fall was for the original strain. It does not reflect the new variants which ... are more infectious, and that's a concern," Hill said.

The group representing physicians has recommended banning indoor restaurant dining and other non-masked indoor activities for regions in the red tier of the province's pandemic system.

Loh and his counterpart in Toronto sought to extend strict shutdown measures and a stay-at-home order for their regions last week, arguing the spread of variants and recent reopening of schools made it too risky to ease restrictions.

The province granted their request, extending the strictest measures for those two regions, as well as North Bay, Ont., until March 8.

The COVID-19 hot spot of York Region, however, saw restrictions ease as it was moved to the red, or second-strictest, tier of the province's pandemic response system.

York's top doctor had sought the loosening of measures, saying his region was not seeing “explosive growth" of variants that were first detected in December.

Dr. Karim Kurji said last week that there was a "reasonable handle" on variant cases, and argued that strong measures needed to be balanced with economic and mental wellbeing.

The province's economic reopening began earlier this month. The government has said, however, that it has created an "emergency brake" measure that allows it to swiftly move regions into lockdown if cases spike.

On Tuesday, the Opposition called for the Progressive Conservative government to clearly define what would trigger the use of that brake measure.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government loosened public health restrictions too soon, without a clearly defined plan.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green party Leader Mike Schreiner also expressed confusion over the parameters of the measure.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the measure considers a public health unit’s increase in case numbers, variants of concern and health system capacity.

She argued the brake was used when the province decided last week to keep Toronto, Peel Region and North Bay under the stay-at-home order for two more weeks.

Horwath called that explanation "troubling."

"It sounds like they're just making it up as they go along," she told reporters.

"All they're relying on is this emergency brake, but they can't describe what that is and when it will be utilized. That's really, really troubling."

Ontario reported 975 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 12 more deaths from the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2021.

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