It may take more than a trip to the provincial government’s red zone to bring Niagara’s COVID-19 infection rate under control, the region’s top public health official said.
Niagara’s interim medical officer of health, Dr Mustafa Hirji, said on Wednesday that with a failed red zone designation to curb the spread of the potentially deadly virus to other parts of Ontario, it may take – be a full lockdown or even something more restrictive to prevent further outbreaks and deaths.
“In some European countries they were much more aggressive and people were only allowed out for absolutely essential reasons. They have to text to get a code that actually says you have permission to go out, ”Hirji said.
“I am not advocating this kind of measure, but I am saying that something beyond the current provincial framework needs to be part of the discussion. It doesn’t seem like personal behaviors change without some sort of external action. “
Hirji’s concern stems from the worsening pandemic crisis in Niagara and the apparent inability of the provincial COVID-19 framework – it imposes increasing levels of economic and social restrictions on regions based on the data – to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
Wednesday’s COVID-19 public health report showed that almost all of the key parameters of the Niagara pandemic had quickly gone from the orange zone in which the region is located to the red level in about a week.
“I think the truth is that next week’s numbers will be even worse because today’s update only caught the start of the recent spike in cases,” Hirji said.
There were 52 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, which sparked a record second day of active infections in the community at 416. Since the start of the pandemic, at least 2,723 residents of Niagara have been infected with the virus.
There is also a record 42 COVID-19 patients treated at Niagara Health hospitals on Wednesday. The previous record was set in May with 39 patients.
On Tuesday, the Ontario government called on all hospitals to implement their emergency plans in anticipation of more COVID-19 patients. Hospitals in red zone areas like Hamilton, or those confined to Toronto like Toronto, need to ensure they have at least 15%. 100 of their total capacity of free beds within 48 hours.
Hospitals in Orange Zones like Niagara must be prepared to free up that space.
Derek McNally, vice president of clinical services at Niagara Health, said the hospital system represents 90% of its total patient capacity. A meeting of senior hospital officials is scheduled for Thursday to discuss how more bed space will be freed up and what other measures – including canceling surgeries and ending hospital visits – could be required.
“Canceling surgeries and diagnostic tests isn’t something we want to do, but it’s something we need to be prepared for,” McNally said.
He said Niagara Health, which is now dealing with three COVID-19 outbreaks at the Greater Niagara General Hospital in Niagara Falls, could implement some emergency measures before the province goes on red alert, which could occur on Friday.
Three more Niagara residents with COVID-19 died on Wednesday, bringing the cumulative total of pandemic deaths in Niagara to 92. Since the first second wave of deaths was recorded on October 5, 28 infected Niagara residents have been deceased.
Three key metrics monitored by the provincial government – the percentage of positive tests in Niagara, the number of cases per 100,000 population, and the local reproduction number which estimates how many people a single case can infect – were all above red zone thresholds Wednesday.
Hirji found that the cases per 100,000 population – they nearly doubled from last week – are a particularly troubling sign of how quickly the virus is spreading in the region.
According to public health data, the rate at which the number of cases in Niagara will double – once more than 400 days by the end of summer – has now fallen to 35 days.
“This means that by the third week of January, we could see over 5,000 cases in Niagara at the current infection rate,” Hirji said.
Hirji said he was not convinced moving Niagara into the red zone would be enough to avert disaster. He said the data could justify the province skipping a red zone for Niagara and moving the region directly to a lockdown, but even that may not slow the spread of the virus.
Regions already in the red zone have experienced rising infection rates, rather than falling. Those locked out have experienced a slowdown in the infection rate, but not a flattening trend, he said.
At the heart of the problem, Hirji said, is that in the red and locked areas people continue to come out, giving the virus more opportunities to spread.
Home care orders may be needed to affect the infection rate in Niagara and the province as a whole, he said.