York Region has avoided a lockdown. But with “worrying” COVID-19 numbers, can he escape the fate of Peel and Toronto?

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Two weeks after York Region managed to avoid being locked up like its neighboring municipalities, COVID-19 cases continue to climb with local hospitals above or near capacity and some areas are seeing surprising numbers of people who tested positive. But the region has yet to sound the alarm bells.

York’s current infection rate of 111 cases per 100,000 people per week is higher than what Toronto reported on the day of its lockdown, Nov. 23, according to the Star’s continuous tally. The region recorded 202 new COVID-19 infections on December 2 and has a positivity test rate of 6.29%, which is higher than the rate reported by Toronto the week before its lockdown.

Additionally, new data released Wednesday by the Toronto-based nonprofit ICES (formerly the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences) revealed that an area of ​​York Region that borders Brampton has a positive test rate. 20.4% – the second highest in the province. .

York Region Deputy Medical Officer of Health Dr Alanna Fitzgerald-Husek said the thresholds were being closely monitored but declined to say the area was closer to a full lockdown.

“The numbers are worrying and this is something we are monitoring,” she said. “The aggregate numbers and the upward curve are concerning, but what’s really important for us is to unwrap that curve and understand where that burden is.”

On November 20, the province announced that Peel and Toronto would be shutting down, including shutting down non-essential retail, to help reduce escalation rates of COVID-19. York, despite its still high numbers, managed to stay in the Red Control Zone, which allowed its businesses to remain open with reduced numbers and limits on gatherings.

Fitzgerald-Husek said the situation in Peel and Toronto was “markedly different” in that they consistently had higher case numbers and rates a few weeks ago compared to York. She said while the region’s numbers have increased, she “still manages with contact tracing,” a key part of the public health response.

“We have good public health capacity; we reach our positive cases within 24 hours, ”she said. “Our incidence rates are a bit higher, so it’s something we’re watching closely. We’ve been in the red control zone for a few days and we’re looking to see if the current trajectory decreases, as it takes around 10-12 days for (cases) to decline.

She said the data was being closely monitored and a “significant and lasting change” could result in a lockdown.

Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said it was already clear the red control measures haven’t worked to “bend the curve” in York.

“There is no reason to expect cases to start declining on their own without taking additional measures in place,” she said. “This is the way the spread of communicable diseases works; you have to change something if you want to change this trajectory. ”

According to ICES data which covers the last full week of November, six regions in York Region had test positivity rates above six percent. Among them was an area that borders Brampton and includes Kleinburg which was the second highest in the province, with a 20 percent positivity rate.

The second highest area in York Region was in Markham, just north of Steeles and east of Brimley, which had a 13.6% positivity rate, while the area with the third highest rate. The region’s high included Concord, just north of York University, which had a positivity rate of 13.1 percent, data show. The other areas with rates above 6% were in Woodbridge, Maple and northeast Markham.

Fitzgerald-Husek said officials were closely monitoring all public health parameters, including the capacity of hospitals and health care in the region.

Markham Stouffville Hospital is operating at over 100% capacity and staff are using all available spaces to care for patients, said CEO Jo-anne Marr, noting that the hospital is so far in able to track nearly all of its pre-COVID hospital services. while making up for a backlog of first wave diagnostic procedures.

Over the past month, the hospital has seen a slow but steady increase in the number of patients admitted with COVID-19 and is currently caring for 15 COVID-positive patients and 25 who are awaiting test results, she said. . Its assessment center’s test positivity rate has fluctuated around 10% in recent weeks, although a hospital spokesperson said it “does not reflect the rate in York Region, because we see many patients coming to the center from regions of the GTA. . ”

Marr said she and the other CEOs of York Region hospitals spoke regularly with public health officials and that while the hospital was under extreme pressure, it was doing so far.

“I know the capacity within the York Region Public Health Unit has been relatively strong… I think this has helped the region avoid – at least to this day – lockdown.

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Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital is approaching capacity and is caring for 34 patients suspected of COVID-19 and 24 patients confirmed positive for COVID, 10 of whom are in intensive care.

Mary-Agnes Wilson, executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer of Mackenzie Health, said the hospital had reached 90% of its critical care capacity. In October, the hospital opened eight additional intensive care beds after receiving support from the province.

“This has been our saving grace in terms of intensive care, as we are well above the 30 basic beds we had before this investment.”

Wilson said the challenge for hospitals during the fall wave is that they are managing COVID-19 activities, including caring for critically ill COVID patients, running assessment centers and supporting patients. long-term care homes, while maintaining regular hospital services.

“Currently, we perform 96% of our pre-COVID hospitalization activities and approximately 86% of our outpatient activities; we hope to maintain this access for patients. “

Wilson said the hospital has plans for a second dedicated COVID-19 unit, if needed.

Local politicians, meanwhile, are optimistic that stricter enforcement measures that have been put in place beyond provincial controls will help control the number of COVID-19 cases, especially as residents of neighboring municipalities have recently taken to shopping malls in York Region for seasonal shopping.

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti, who spoke out on security measures since the start of the pandemic, said the Regional Council decided to stay in the red zone on the recommendation of the region’s medical office for health , Dr Karim Kurji, to the province.

At the time, after the region recently moved into the Red Control Zone, Kurji told the council that the companies were largely complying with the additional security measures that had been put forward and that hospitals in the region managed the demand.

“We had seen the red zone work in the past, so the thought was to give a little more time,” he said.

Scarpitti said he supports the move on the grounds that the region is stepping up enforcement of those who violate social distancing rules, and that the province or region will implement a refined red zone allowing capacity restrictions and physical distancing within retail and large businesses. box stores and limitations for religious gatherings in banquet halls.

Scarpitti said that when the province did not change the rules, Kurji issued a Section 22 order to enforce those restrictions.

Over the weekend, the York Region COVID-19 Enforcement Task Force completed 1,039 inspections, laid 42 charges and participated in 737 education and compliance activities. Among those charged were Promenade Mall, Dollarama, Longo’s and Costco. The majority of fines are $ 880 and range from not respecting physical distance to not wearing a mask.

Noor Javed is a Toronto reporter who covers York Region news for The Star. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved

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