Niagara Region is getting “very close” to the “restrict” range and if people don't start to take COVID guidelines more seriously, the area will likely face further restrictions, the region's top public health official warns.
“The people who aren't cutting down in a social context and letting infection spread, they're actually going to be responsible for the additional economic harm,” Dr. Mustafa Hirji told a news conference Friday.
SInce that announcement Toronto and Peel are facing lockdowns.
Niagara-on-the-Lake has had 59 COVID cases since the start of the pandemic. As of Wednesday, NOTL had seven active cases, a few of which are related to a small cluster of infections among workers at the Outlet Collection mall.
The province has instituted a new COVID framework, with a revised system of restrictions for different regions. The system has five levels: green for prevent, yellow for protect, orange for restrict, red for control and lockdown as a measure of last and urgent resort.
Now, even in the protect phase (yellow), there are additional restrictions being put in place for various businesses, such as dining being limited to six people per table, personal contact information must be collected for each patron, not just a party contact, for bars, restaurants and personal services like hair cutting, and appointments must be made for sports and recreational facilities.
The bottom line is that people need to reduce social contact, Hirji said, adding cases are now spiking higher than they did when the pandemic lockdowns began in March.
He said the rise in cases recently can be attributed to mainly younger people, between the ages of 20 and 40. He said contact tracing done on a group of young people found they contributed to more than 117 infections across multiple municipalites and hundreds of people contacted.
“This I think really illustrates how what all started with one case is spread rapidly to many more cases, led to hundreds of contacts, led to over 100 locations where we've had to investigate, assess the risk and, in some cases, do follow up leading to some of those contacts.”
Hirji said he understands people are growing tired of the pandemic, but it's still important to stay vigilant by following public health recommendations and rules.
“I think everybody recognizes that there's COVID fatigue. I'm sure every single one of us is feeling that. And I totally understand how people are really struggling to continue to have vigilance, with it really looking like it's gonna be many more months, at least before we have a vaccine,” Hirji said.
“And if anything, with cases going up, I think, you know, many people may be feeling quite disheartened that they might be doing quite a lot already. And it doesn't seem to be enough yet.”
He said the reality of the situation is cases are rising, “and the only way we address that is either by reducing social interaction (through) restrictions on businesses and social life, or by us voluntarily limiting our social activities.”
Hirji said it’s possible for the region to put additional restrictions in place, but that could harm the economy further. For now the focus is on a “balanced” approach and counting on people to do their part.
Health officials are trying to “allow enough freedom so people can live their social lives and the economy can recover, while still having enough restrictions that, when paired with personal choices, leads to a flattening of infections in society.”
He said the public health department is trying not to “upset that balance too much.”
“We've seen lots of businesses struggling, many businesses go under, many people being out of work as a result. And we're very mindful that those have serious social and health implications to people as well,” Hirji said.
He said the region hopes a balanced approach leads to improvement in infection numbers, by continuing to encourage young people to follow guidelines “and really lay out in quite stark terms that we're now right up the line of moving into that restrict category, there are going to be additional restrictions on business.”
“I think it's worth giving one last try for our people to hear that message, to understand what the implication of their choice is going to be, and hope that it has an impact,” Hirji said.
“And if it doesn't, Niagara will, I think, move into that restrict category. And we will see additional measures put in place by the provincial government at that point, which unfortunately, will harm our local businesses and harm our economy in the name of ensuring though we don't see unsustainable spread of COVID-19.”