Ontario’s COVID-19 numbers: Where we are now and where we may be headed

ANALYSIS: Provincial health officials shared their modelling with the public today. It reveals the motivation behind every decision the government is making
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 03, 2020
Peter Donnelly, the president and CEO of Public Health Ontario, updated the media at Queen’s Park today. (CP24.com)

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The map is not the territory, and the model will not be the pandemic. We live in reality but make sense of the chaos and ambiguity with abstractions every day, in every part of our lives. And, in 2020, our deaths.

Provincial public-health officials briefed the media Friday on their current modelling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the numbers are somehow equal parts grim and cheering. If you’ve been one of the people who have done their best to stay home, wash your hands, keep two metres away from anyone in public, congratulations: by April 30, your efforts will have prevented 220,000 people in this province from contracting COVID-19.

Since World War II analogies are all the rage these days: that’s nearly two-thirds as many people as were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. But now, as then, the battle is not yet won, and there’s more to do. The current projected death toll in Ontario is 1,600 by April 30, and the government’s advisers hope that further measures will reduce that number to 200. As of today, the official death toll — the apples-to-apples number, for our purposes — is 67.

The number that has government obsessed is the number of intensive-care-unit beds currently available in the province. Patients with COVID-19 who need intensive care but aren’t able to get it are much more likely to perish, a fact that has been tragically illustrated in Italy. Over 1,300 beds are either available now or will rapidly become available, based on the existing “surge” capacity. Every decision the government is making — about everything from emergency-supply orders to restrictions on our freedoms — is being made to keep the peak of Ontario’s outbreak from overwhelming the ICU wards.

And, so, the government has tightened the screw again this afternoon. The list of businesses allowed to operate during the state of emergency will be substantially reduced, effective 11:59 p.m. Saturday. No new residential construction will be allowed to start, and projects currently underway will be closely monitored.

“We all have to ask ourselves: How much is a life worth? Is a life worth a picnic in the park?” Premier Doug Ford said at Queen’s Park this afternoon. “The answer is no.”

There are longer-term projections, for the full 18 months to two years of the pandemic (which will end only when there’s a safe vaccine being produced at commercial scale). Those numbers are larger and come with much larger caveats about accuracy. But they are part of what has so alarmed governments across the country in recent weeks, and they are part of what has motivated the restrictions on our liberties. According to these projections, Ontario could eventually experience between 3,000 and 15,000 deaths. The fact that the estimate is anywhere within five multiples of the lower bound tells you how careful we should be when interpreting that statement.

The most optimistic numbers from the models are, of course, going to materialize only if current measures — and additional measures — are implemented and adhered to. What we don’t have any clarity on, or even any real guidance on, is when some of these measures may start being lifted. The modelled results still show more than 800 people in ICU beds by the end of April. Will schools really reopen on May 4 as currently planned? How long can Toronto’s population of apartment-dwellers reasonably be asked to stay home when so many of them don’t have as much as a backyard to relieve the stress of confinement in?

The models tell us many things, but today they couldn’t tell us that.

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