Ontario’s third wave is here. We still have to live like it’s 2020

OPINION: The race between virus and vaccines is on, and COVID-19 is winning. We need to stay safe a little longer, folks
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Mar 16, 2021
People line up to get their vaccinations at a Toronto pharmacy on March 11, 2021. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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On Tuesday morning, Ontario’s COVID-19 science table made it more or less official: the province is in a third wave of COVID-19 infections. This one is driven by so-called variants of concern (VOCs), mutations that are both more infectious and, a growing body of evidence suggests, more deadly than the original.

It’s bad news, and we should take it seriously. Ontario’s intensive-care units are still full of COVID-19 patients. We peaked at 400 or so patients in ICU beds in mid-January, and, two months later, we’re still struggling to get that number substantially below 300. Even a wave of infections less terrifying than the second wave risks overloading the province’s hospitals, something we’ve been trying to avoid since this all started a year ago. The VOCs, according to the science table, are spreading like wildfire; they have a reproductive number of 1.4, similar to what Ontario’s overall R number was in March 2020 and higher than the province’s overall number was at any point in the second wave.

We might have avoided this if we’d made different choices; in January, I spoke with former federal deputy minister Robert Greenhill, who warned that aiming for a “COVID-zero” approach was the only way to avoid a third lockdown. We didn’t do that, so here we are. There’s an election next year, and we’ll all get to relitigate Doug Ford’s choices in government then. Right now, I’m mostly just exhausted.

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But the vaccines are coming, right? They are, and in greater numbers than we’d hoped for even a month ago. On any given day, we’ll be vaccinating many more people than get newly sick. And the fact that we’ve already protected the residents of long-term care and are now moving on to the over-80 segment of the population gives reason to hope that we’ll be able to keep the virus from being as deadly as it was in the second wave (which was deadlier than the first).

Everyone at this point understands that the ultimate goal is herd immunity, the point at which enough people are immunized such that individual cases won’t flare up into outbreaks. That point is, at best, months away. About the only good news in our current state is that “herd immunity” isn’t a light switch that’s either on or off; vaccinating a larger and larger share of the population should lower the virus’s R number in much the same way that public-health measures do.

Technically, this is a bit uncertain: there’s good real-world evidence that first doses keep people out of hospitals, but we don’t know for certain how effective they are at keeping people from making others sick. Whatever the eventual measure is, it’s very unlikely to be zero, so that will help — at the margins — eventually get the pandemic, finally, under control.

But, until then, as the pandemic continues to rage, it looks as if 2020 living will have to remain all the rage. It’s far from obvious, on March 16, 2021, that the “March break” the province shifted into April will happen as currently scheduled or that schools in the hottest of hot spots will reopen after a closure of a single week: there are nearly as many COVID-19 cases in Ontario’s schools today as there were when schools closed for Christmas break (and then didn’t reopen across southern Ontario). Schools in Thunder Bay have already gone back to remote learning, as that city deals with what’s arguably Ontario’s worst outbreak to date, in terms of per capita cases.

I know many people have long since lost their patience with government public-health measures — and I’ve criticized the Ford government for not moving fast enough to get ahead of COVID-19 — but the decision last week to move Sudbury into “grey-lockdown” marked the first time the province had used its “emergency brake” function in response to something that actually felt like an emergency. That could, perhaps, be a welcome signal that the government is prepared to act aggressively to extinguish outbreaks.

The next few weeks are going to be worse than they needed to be. But if we can get through them, Ontario’s third wave will likely be its last. The accelerated vaccine rollout and the warming weather — which will allow for increased use of outdoor spaces and better ventilation (more Canadians open their windows in April than in February, go figure) — will hopefully see us get back to normal-ish life later in the spring. For those of us in places like Toronto and Peel, the chance has been blown to get together with family for Easter or Passover, but the May 24 weekend isn’t that far away. We just need to hold on a little longer.

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