Should Ontario reopen faster? It might be more complicated than you think

OPINION: Case counts are falling, and vaccines are on the rise — but so is the Delta variant. Patience may be the only answer
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 29, 2021
Premier Doug Ford leaves a vaccine centre in Brampton on June 3. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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That Premier Doug Ford wants to accelerate the reopening of Ontario’s economy barely counts as news anymore. More novel was his explicit message of patience, delivered on Monday in Bracebridge. Before Ontario had even moved into Step 2 of the reopening plan (which it does on Wednesday), the premier was saying he’d love to move to Step 3 — but that the province’s businesses would probably be asked to wait something like the prescribed 21-day interval between steps.

“Folks, just bear with us for a very short period; it's gonna happen,” Ford said. “I have to follow the direction of the chief medical officer. Everyone has this perception [that because] I'm the premier, I get to snap my fingers and get it done. It just doesn't work that way.”

Speaking of Kieran Moore (the new chief medical officer of health), he was asked precisely this question not too long ago — should Ontario accelerate its reopening plan? — and it sure didn’t sound like he was ready to hit the gas.

“The other issue we're following is the Delta variant that's in Ontario now. It's roughly at 50 per cent of the strains that have been identified. And we're seeing that it's spreading rapidly in certain areas of Ontario now, including Waterloo Region,” Moore said at Queen’s Park on Thursday. “So I do believe a slow and cautious approach is warranted, with Delta becoming a major strain in Ontario.”

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Almost before Moore’s voice had finished bouncing off the walls of the legislature’s media studio, he offered one morsel of hope, based on the prospect that Ontario could eventually see at least 80 per cent of adults with both doses.

“Once we achieve that … the incidence of even Delta will be going down in our communities, and we'll be able to open up more fully and more safely — very quickly — so if you're hearing the tone of my voice, it's very positive and very thankful to all Ontarians,” Moore said.

Given that 77 per cent of adults in Ontario have already received their first shot, it’s tempting to suggest that the 80 per cent milestone will be an easy one to pass in the next few days. The catch is that the vast majority of needles going into arms recently have been delivering second doses, whereas relatively small numbers of people are signing up for their first jab. On Sunday, 155,401 people over 18 received their second dose — but only 15,258 signed up for their first, moving the provincewide fraction by a bit over a 10th of a per cent. We need 20 times that many people — roughly 300,000 — to show up for their first shots (and then, weeks later, their second) just to close the gap between 77 and 80 per cent.

The good news is, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic that we’ll get to 80 per cent eventually, and there’s also reason to be happy about the number of people under 18 who are coming out to get shots: their numbers aren’t technically being counted in any of the benchmarks the government has set, but vaccinated is vaccinated, and every little bit helps tamp down the possibility of outbreaks.

It's just not clear that crossing the 80 per cent threshold will happen much earlier than the scheduled entry into Step 3, which will take place on July 20 if it happens 21 days after the start of Step 2.

Seeing as I was pretty skeptical about moving up the transition to Step 2 by more than a few days, you’d be forgiven for assuming that I’m also opposed to moving up the transition to Step 3. In truth, I’m not sure the argument is cut and dried.

Beyond the overall vaccination numbers, it’s worth looking at the rates for specific age groups. People 50 to 59 have nearly reached the 80 per cent threshold for first doses, and every older demographic scores even higher. These groups are the most likely to die from COVID-19 (all but 215 of Ontario’s more than 9,000 fatalities — nearly 98 per cent — have been people 50 or older), so it’s simply not plausible that future outbreaks will be as fierce or lethal as the second and third waves were; indeed, it’s hard to imagine that they'd be anywhere close. The number of people in ICU beds in Ontario also continues to fall consistently, and that's one of the key indicators that has governed so much of the province’s response to the pandemic.

I take Moore’s warnings about Delta seriously, so don’t think the above is an argument for throwing caution to the wind. If it were my choice, I’d have the province wait the full 21 days to move from Step 2 to 3. Not only would it demonstrate the government’s ability to pass its own marshmallow test — something it has failed to do in previous months — it would also have a certain symmetry: we’d be wrapping up the largest part of the vaccination drive as we enter Step 3, with the vast majority of people having received both doses, before we resumed things like indoor dining and movie theatres.

But for the first time in a while I find myself wondering how much the next few weeks of Step 2 are really going to accomplish, relative to everything that’s come before. And so we’re left with the premier’s counsel from the beginning of this column: patience. We’ll know more in a week’s time, and we’ll have a better idea then of whether it’s worth moving up the date to enter Step 3.

Patience — but if the winds really are at our back, not for much longer.

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