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Peel top doctor suggests building relief policies into Ontario pandemic framework

A women cleans the store front window while wearing her protective mask during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Thursday, December 17, 2020. Toronto and Peel region continue to be in lockdown. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The top doctor for one of Ontario’s COVID-19 hot spots says paid sick days and relief for businesses could be built into the province’s pandemic response system to help mitigate a third wave.

Peel Region’s Dr. Lawrence Loh says resistance to strict public health measures often stems from lack of relief.

He says the province should consider looking at how support policies could be part of Ontario’s tiered restrictions system, taking effect when regions are in certain categories.

The government did not immediately respond to requests for comment but has previously said that it isn’t looking to implement its own sick leave police because some relief is available through a federal benefit.

Loh’s suggestions came during a discussion hosted by the Ontario Medical Association that looked ahead to the next stage of the pandemic.

The medical association has called for Ontario to tighten COVID-19 restrictions in light of more infectious variants spreading in the province.

The group representing physicians has recommended banning indoor restaurant dining and other non-masked indoor activities for regions in the red tier of the province’s pandemic system.

Loh and his counterpart in Toronto sought to extend strict shutdown measures and a stay-at-home order for their regions last week, arguing the spread of variants and recent reopening of schools made it too risky to ease restrictions.

The province granted their request, extending the strictest measures for those two regions, as well as North Bay, Ont., until March 8.

The COVID-19 hot spot of York Region, however, saw restrictions ease as it was moved to the red, or second-strictest, tier of the province’s pandemic response system.

York’s top doctor had sought the loosening of measures, saying his region was not seeing “explosive growth” of variants that were first detected in December.

Dr. Karim Kurji said last week that there was a “reasonable handle” on variant cases, arguing the need for strong measures needed to be balanced with economic and mental wellbeing.

The province’s economic reopening began earlier this month. The government has said, however, that it has created an “emergency brake” measure that allows it to swiftly move regions into lockdown if cases spike.

On Tuesday, the Opposition called for the government to clearly define what would trigger the use of that brake measure.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government loosened public health restrictions too soon, without a clearly defined plan.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green party Leader Mike Schreiner also expressed confusion over the parameters of the measure.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the measure considers a public health unit’s increase in case numbers, variants of concern and health system capacity.

She argued it was used when the province decided last week to keep Toronto, Peel Region and North Bay under the stay-at-home order for two more weeks.