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'A transition to a new pandemic': Toronto's top doctor says now is not the time to relax health measures

Last Updated Feb 8, 2021 at 10:23 pm EDT

With three variants of COVID-19 now confirmed in Toronto, the City’s top doctor says the uncertainty with the mutations – coupled with the ability for them to spread even faster than the original strain – means now is not the time to ease restrictions and health measures.

At Monday’s COVID-19 briefing, and shortly after the Ford government said the stay-at-home-order will remain in effect in Toronto until February 22, the City’s medical officer of health confirmed the first cases of the Brazilian and South African variant.

Toronto would then presumably enter Ontario’s “Grey-Lockdown” tier after that date.

Eileen de Villa says it is important for us to see the circumstances for what they are.

“Today we are in a transition from one pandemic to another. The transition to a new pandemic,” de Villa said.

“It was inevitable the variants of concern would emerge in Toronto. The UK variant – B.1.1.7 is confirmed. Screening indicates the south African variant, B 1351, and the Brazilian variant – P. 1 – are here, too.”

“We are in a position of great uncertainty with respect to [COVID-19] variants. But what we know is alarming. I understand the value of preparing for the time we can lift restrictions. From a public health perspective in Toronto, that time is not now,” Toronto’s top doctor added.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) says there are currently 27 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant in the City.

As of Monday, the province had counted 219 confirmed cases of the variant from the UK.

 

A single-day snapshot from January found that the variant from the UK accounted for 5.5 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases in the province, and that percentage is expected to rise quickly.

Both Mayor John Tory and de Villa say it is right for the province and the Ford government to set extra time before the City can begin to reopen.

“Decisions to reopen do not come with guarantees except that cases of COVID-19 will rise when we interact again more frequently,” de Villa said.

“We’ve seen this before. There’s no reason to believe it will be different this time. In fact, there’s probably less. If as expected variants of concern become the dominant strain in Toronto, there is an even greater likelihood of case counts increasing given increased transmissibility is proven by science to be true.”

Tory says he is glad the City doesn’t have to re-open in the following days, giving time for them to address challenges brought by COVID-19.

“The good news about it what was announced today is Toronto doesn’t have to open today or tomorrow,” the mayor said.

“There is some time that has been given to take account of the fact that we had what I called earlier on some entrenched challenges that have stretched back sometime now with COVID-19, and it gives us some time, as well, to see what happens with regard to the variants.”

In late January and as part of Ontario’s latest round of modelling, Dr. Adalsteinn Brown said the B.1.1.7 variant is at least 30 percent higher in terms of transmissibility than the current strain.

Brown said the UK variant could cause cases to spike again if precautions aren’t taken.

De Villa provided some details of her own, citing data collected by the Centre for Disease at York University. The model examines the levels of death at various levels of virus transmission.

“It is based on transmission rates as seen in Toronto in mid-to-late January. On that basis according to the model, with unchanged transmission rates, the death toll for Toronto would rise to almost 5,500 by this May,” de Villa said.

“If transmission increased by 10 percent, the model finds Toronto’s death toll would rise to slightly more than 9,200 fatalities. If transmission increases by 20 percent, we would expect 15,865 deaths by May of this year.”

Public health officials around the world have raised concerns about new virus variants that are more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines. While viruses mutate constantly, most of the changes cause little concern. But scientists are closely tracking these mutations to make sure they quickly identify variants of concern.

The developers of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine say the shot appears to work against the variant detected in Britain late last year which is similar to previously reported results by other vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer and Moderna. Researchers are studying the potential effectiveness of the vaccine against the South Africa variant.