Case numbers dropped this week. Is that a reason for optimism?

OPINION: The numbers are still objectively bad — but they aren’t still going up. Even if it’s a blip, the timing couldn’t be better
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 14, 2021
Hospitalization numbers, including those for ICU capacity, stopped soaring up this week. (Mikaela MacKenzie/CP)

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Welcome to the stay-at-home-order era of Ontario’s COVID-19 response. For the record, I’m writing this at home.

My recent TVO.org columns — two of the previous three in this new, equally bleak year — have asked the government what the plan is. The answer took a while to come (probably too long), but we have it. Ontario has declared another state of emergency. It somewhat belatedly provided documents to clarify what the rules are during that emergency, even if some are more like guidelines than rules and open to startlingly broad interpretation by police and bylaw-enforcement officials. (That’ll come to tears, somewhere and eventually.) On Thursday, the province also took the still-rare step of blasting an alert to all Ontarians on TV, radio, and cellular networks with the emergency broadcasting system.

There’s probably a column to be written that pores over the details of the order. There are no doubt absurdities to be found there, where two rules that might make sense in isolation look ridiculous next to each other. My favourite from earlier this week, before the province clarified what precisely counted as valid reasons to leave one’s house, was how reporters instantly noted the weirdness of telling people to stay home and to limit their outdoor gatherings to a maximum of five people. Which one was it? The answer was reasonable and banal, once the province elaborated: people are still being permitted to leave their homes for exercise, and, as an example, could go for a walk with others, but not in a group larger than five. Okay, fair enough. But it still looks odd until explained.

There will be other examples of absurdities and restrictions that make sense in isolation but not in comparison to others. Suffice it to say, all of this is going to come down to balancing the strong desire to get everyone to stay at home with the exceptions granted for their absences. As always, the devil will be in the details.

But I’m not interested, at least not today, in the details. I’m interested in the big picture: Will this actually work?

Keen followers of each day’s barrage of COVID-19 news might have noticed something interesting. Contrary to expectations, case numbers dropped this week, coming off recent record highs. The numbers are still objectively bad — much worse than anything we’ve seen before. But they aren’t still going up. Hospitalizations, including ICU capacity, also stopped soaring up. They didn’t come down, but they stalled. This isn’t what we were expecting, and it didn’t last: by Thursday’s update, the numbers were rising again, so it is extremely possible that we just had a few blips in the data. That’ll happen. But it made me wonder whether, perhaps, just perhaps, the worst-case scenarios won’t come to pass. Maybe, after an orgy of rule-breaking and guidelines-flouting over the holidays, Ontarians are starting to play ball.

Or maybe it’s a blip, like I said. A number of times in recent months, I’ve spoken with TVO.org’s John Michael McGrath, who’s been kind enough to join me on a radio program I host on SiriusXM. On a few occasions, Ontario has seen what looked like a real plateau or even a decline in the relevant indicators; each time, it’s been a false-hope-inducing anomaly that disappeared as soon as we dared comment on its existence. In a week, maybe these few days of relatively good news will have joined those earlier incidents as just another mirage that came to nothing.

But even if it is a blip — good Lord, it’s a well-timed blip. Ontario has rolled out these new measures to save the health-care system from collapse. We are in a race against time to bring COVID-19 case growth down before there’s simply no more medical care left for the sick and injured. If, for whatever reason, we’re catching even the briefest break, the timing couldn’t be better — we’d be getting one just as the new state of emergency takes effect and, we hope, starts to move things in the right direction.

Now that vaccines are coming, however fitfully, we know that we don’t have to hang on forever. We just need to buy time. A hard, effective lockdown now, perhaps aided by a surprise slacking in COVID-19’s usually relentless march, might buy us time to get more vulnerable populations and essential workers securely vaccinated. It could make a big difference. It could save lives.

Or it could not. If the apparent slow-down in cases and hospitalization growth rates prove transient and ultimately meaningless, then it’s all up to the stay-at-home order. In recent days, the premier has said that roughly a third of Ontarians are not co-operating in the effort to stop the spread. As noted in my last column here, Ontarians have known the score for a while. They know the stakes and what’s required and expected. If about 30 per cent of us have decided to throw in the towel, our hope for getting out of this mess any time soon hinges on whether the new measures and the extended school closures will meaningfully deter them.

We can hope so! But some of this is undoubtedly going to come down to enforcement. With unclear rules, plenty of exceptions, and heavy reliance on officers’ discretion, we could be in for some pretty spectacular disagreements and controversies.

For most of us, though — the 70 per cent who’ve been playing ball all along — it’s mostly more of the same. At least we have hockey again.

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