If we’re not aiming for the best-case scenario, what are we doing?

OPINION: There’s a whole wide world of actions the government could be taking. It’s choosing to gamble with a deadly virus instead
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 30, 2021
Adalsteinn Brown is the co-chair of Ontario's science advisory table. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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It’s been a very long year, and the end of the worst phase of the pandemic is actually in sight. So why are we taking more risks with our COVID-19 response when the past four months have already demonstrated how costly it can be to gamble with a deadly virus?

Ontario’s science advisory table — which, the government has had occasion to remind reporters this week, is not formally part of the decision-making process at Queen’s Park (and, boy, does it show!) — laid out on Thursday the changes in policy that will be needed if we’re to bring the crisis in our hospitals to the fastest possible end.

What the advisory table has called for to get to the best-case scenario: four weeks of sending 50 per cent of Ontario’s vaccine allocation to the hardest-hit postal codes; a narrowed list of essential workplaces (with the aim of lowering mobility overall); and effective sick pay.

What Ontario’s policy is right now: two weeks of vaccine priority for hot spots; an expansive list of “essential” services allowed to stay open (resulting in only modest declines in mobility); and three days of sick pay.

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So it wasn’t exactly a galloping shock when the University of Toronto’s Adalsteinn Brown told me on Thursday that Ontario’s current policies will not get us to the best-case scenario.

The opposition parties at Queen’s Park were quick to pounce: both NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Liberal leader Steven Del Duca tweeted that the government should immediately expand its newly legislated program of three paid sick days to something more generous. And maybe it should — though Brown didn’t say that explicitly. His was a one-word answer, and the word was “no,” so anyone who tries to tie Brown’s name to a specific policy recommendation (beyond what was in his presentation) should show their work.

But it’s an inescapable question for the Tories right now: If they’re not aiming for the best-case scenario — the fastest possible decline in new cases and the fastest possible relief for our hospital system — what exactly are they doing? Because there’s a whole wide world of possible actions they could be taking, and they’re not.

Without any real discussion, Ontario seems to have basically given up on testing as an effective means of guiding its pandemic response: we’re not testing that many more people now than we were in November, despite record-high positivity rates. That all but guarantees we’re missing many cases or catching them too late. Premier Doug Ford made a lot of noise about rapid testing last year, yet Ontario’s actual use of that technology has been sluggish at best. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia last week tested more than 11,000 people in a single day. For Ontario to match that performance on a per capita basis, it would take 165,000 daily tests — more than three times what we’ve averaged in the past week.

(Testing alone won’t get you out of a pandemic, of course; Nova Scotia announced Friday that it’s dialing back because its labs are overwhelmed. But this comes after a level of testing that Ontario has never even attempted. Given the collapse of any serious contact-tracing efforts in this province, it’s not even obvious that more testing would do much here — though that’s more damning, not less. Like Ontario, Nova Scotia has adopted some very aggressive public-health measures, including school closures. At this point, however, the smart money is on students in Halifax returning to class before students in Toronto do.)

The government hasn’t even, as of this writing, revised its absurd restrictions on outdoor amenities. It’s penalizing and prohibiting the safest activities that are currently possible in Ontario instead of encouraging them.

Right now, to all appearances, it looks as if the Tories’ plan is to let the veritable feast of vaccines we’re anticipating in May and June do the hard work of ending this wave of the pandemic, and the good news for them is that there’s no reason to believe they won’t meet their deadline of getting every Ontarian 18 or older their first dose by the end of June. That extrapolation from Thursday’s vaccine briefing might be the best news the government has received all month.

Whether it’ll be enough to save the hospital system from the stress it’s already under is another question altogether.

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