Ontario needs to stick with its COVID-19 metrics — or create new ones

OPINION: Let’s make sure politicians are clear on what the goals are — and whether there is a plan to achieve them
By Matt Gurney - Published on Aug 09, 2021
In a largely vaccinated population, we should be able to sustain a higher level of cases without imposing a crushing burden on the health-care system. (Nathan Denette/CP)



I had a disquieting but faintly amusing experience on Monday. I’d taken 10 days off for a needed vacation, and, as I typically do when on holiday, I’d unplugged from the news entirely. My whole working life revolves around the news — meaning not just current events but also the news business and its deadlines and rhythms. A vacation during which I stop working but remain fully plugged in and up to speed on current events, reading and absorbing information at my usual work-day rate, wouldn’t really be a vacation. So when I’m on holiday, I delete all my work-related apps, studiously avoid the news I’d normally read voraciously every day, and just ... try not to worry about it. I golf. I listen to music and read bad novels and good histories. It’s very liberating, and it’s the only way I can really get a true restorative break.

I began plugging back into the bigger world last night. And this morning, I discovered that ... nothing had changed. Still worried about a fourth wave but hoping vaccines will blunt it? Check. Federal election still believed to be imminent? Check. Housing affordability still a major issue? Check. Bad news on the climate front, with a side order of wildfires? Check and check. 

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Oh, wait. The Blue Jays can play in Toronto. That happened. And an entire Olympics, apparently. Okay, fair enough. But, seriously, dear readers — getting back up to speed was way easier than I’d anticipated. Ever since the pandemic began, every day has seemed to bring horrific new stories. Maybe it’s finally slowed down some?

About the only thing that seems particularly notable, as I get back up to a normal professional tempo, is that Ontario’s COVID-19 case n umbers have wobbled up rather sharply since I checked out at the end of last month. And what we do about that is going to be very interesting.

I’m not particularly alarmed by rising case counts. They were inevitable. I do admit to being somewhat surprised by how quickly they’ve come up, but they were always going to rise, and we either believe in the vaccines or we don’t. I do, that’s why I got Pfizered, twice. Four hundred (or so) new daily cases in a largely unvaccinated population versus 400 (or so) new daily cases in a largely vaccinated population are not comparable numbers. Case counts still matter, but the formula has changed since the earlier waves. In a largely vaccinated population, we’ll be able to sustain a higher level of cases and transmission without imposing a crushing burden on the health-care system. 

And that has been the main metric for fighting COVID-19 in Ontario all along. Every serious illness and death from COVID-19 is a tragedy on a personal level — get vaccinated, people! — but our policy, I think wisely, hasn’t been to prevent tragedies on the individual level but to preserve our institutions. That means, first and foremost, our health-care system, and that has come at a huge cost to other systems, mainly education. So long as this remains our policy, we’ll have to get used to a new kind of COVID-19 math, where cases won’t produce as many illnesses as they would have during the first trio of waves.

We’ve known this for a while. I first wrote about ICU occupancy being the only meaningful metric for our pandemic planning last year, in October. Case counts were relevant only insofar as more cases led to more ICU admissions. That’s still true, but the relationship between cases and ICU occupancy weeks later should be different now, in a good way. (Fingers crossed!)

There’s a difference, though, between knowing something intellectually and accepting it in your gut. That’s going to be the problem.

This will work on two levels: the official government level, and, frankly, the rest of us. The “rest of us” category is the easy one — we’ll have to adjust our expectations and responses (emotional and practical) to the new case-count reality, recognizing that the math has changed and that COVID-19 cases will probably continue to happen forever. This will put us, as individuals, in greater danger. But barring a new variant that bypasses our existing vaccines, it should not ever again put our societal institutions in danger. This isn’t a pleasant thing to contemplate, but our world is more dangerous now than it was before COVID-19, and pretending otherwise won’t change this new, grimmer reality. 

And then there’s the official level: the government will need to stick to its metrics. If that means we need better metrics, well, sure, let’s set new goals and thresholds and then stick to them. But whatever our new metric for managing the pandemic becomes, let’s hope that it’s a good one and that our elected leaders can stick to it.

That last bit is a depressingly big question mark. Ontarians can be forgiven, particularly after the catastrophic government bungling that helped lead to the third wave and continued during it, for wondering whether their government will do any better this time. This province has not been well-led during this crisis. That will be dismissed as a partisan attack against the Progressive Conservatives, but it isn’t — I have no idea whether the Liberals or NDP would have done better. Any discussion of that hinges on the hypothetical. 

But what isn’t hypothetical — what is just objective fact — is that the government Ontario has now could have done better, in some specific and meaningful ways, and did not. Given past failures, there are grounds for skepticism when it comes to future performance. A government that was slow to react to the second wave and also to the third and then massively overreacted to the third wave in a state of obvious panic may struggle with a fourth wave. As far as predictions go, that ain’t much of one.

So let’s start the process now. If hospital ICU capacity is our metric, let’s say so, loudly and clearly, and then insist the government adhere to it, while still taking reasonable steps to keep cases as low as possible. Let’s make sure the politicians are clear on what the goals are, that those goals are realistic, that there is a plan to achieve them, and that all of this is communicated clearly to the public. 

And then let’s avoid any sudden, panic-driven course corrections. If the facts stay the same, the plan should, too. This shouldn’t be as aspirational as it likely is, alas, but time will tell.

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