Is a COVID-19 lockdown looming? It's never been more unclear

If you just go by the COVID-19 numbers, we should be bracing for some sort of lockdown soon, but it's difficult to get a political leader to say if one might be on the way, or when, or what it might look like.

Health officials urge more restrictions soon, but political leaders send a different message

Vaccinations and the arrival of spring bring much-needed sunny news, but it may be pushing out more sobering aspects of the COVID-19 reality. (Brian Morris/CBC)

If you just go by the COVID-19 numbers — and they are almost all bad — we should be bracing for some sort of lockdown soon.

Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said less than two weeks ago that the COVID-19 numbers were "getting out of control," and that was when the case tally stood at significantly lower levels than the last few days.

And late last week, Ottawa Public Health told CBC that "data is pointing to the need for stricter measures to address the current resurgence across Canada and Ontario."

For Dr. Doug Manuel, a researcher with The Ottawa Hospital who does the modelling of the local numbers, a worsening outlook also seems pretty obvious.

"The likelihood of us running into difficulties if we don't do anything is very high," Manuel said. "So it's a question of when do we want to make those restrictions? Now or later?"

As COVID-19 cases rise, expect problems with hospitalizations and contact tracing, epidemiologist says

1 year ago
Duration 0:59
Doug Manuel, senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, says the contact tracing system will begin to break down if the number of cases outstrips a health agency’s ability to track them.

Despite these clear warnings from medical experts, good luck getting a political leader to say if a lockdown of some kind might be on the way, or when, or what it might look like.

Yes, they say, the trends in the numbers are worrisome. ICU beds filling up? "We're going to keep a sharp eye on that," Premier Doug Ford allowed in his news conference Monday.

Ford even conceded that parents of kids in school need to know ahead of time whether the delayed March Break set for April will still go ahead, and he indicated there might be more information on that key question available at the end of this week.

And, on a day that new provincial data shows the COVID-19 pandemic is now "completely out of control", the premier gently admonished some of the younger people who are getting together socially and transmitting the virus.

"Guys, we gotta watch it. This is serious."

Harder to face reality

Yet the seriousness of the situation often seems offset by other factors.

For instance, non-essential businesses remain open even though Ottawa is now designated a restricted red zone, which means people are only supposed to leave their homes for essential purposes.

Even as numbers were rising, on March 19 the rules were loosened in the most restrictive zones to allow for more people to dine indoors and outdoors.

Vaccinations are underway and spring is here. The vaccines are gradually providing real protection for a growing fraction of the population, and the warm weather is liable to buoy the spirits of everybody.

COVID-19 is currently winning the race between the virus and the vaccination rollout. (Antoine Trépanier/Radio-Canada)

And who isn't primed to jump on any development that makes them feel better? We've been through enough. More than 17,000 people in Ottawa have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 and, tragically, 460 people have died. But in a city of a million people, it's still possible for an individual not to have been personally touched by the COVID-19 illness, making the wearying rules that much harder to follow.

"I've been saying the same story for a year, but it's not going over quite as well as it used to," said Manuel, who's also a member of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. 

"When I've been talking about the numbers increasing, I found that people don't want to hear it."

And that resistance to reality is a problem.

Here's the bad news

Not only are most of Ottawa's COVID-19 indicators heading the wrong way, they are about to break records.

Monday saw 184 more cases of the illness, one of Ottawa's highest daily case counts. Even more telling are the stats for new weekly cases expressed per 100,000 people: 93 back in early January; now, we're around 85.

Two weeks ago, it was only 52.

Worse, the January numbers partly reflected a period of lockdown, which came into effect on Dec. 26. Our current numbers are reaching record levels before we enter a holiday long weekend, which, if the Christmas break was any indication, bodes poorly.

Even unambiguous good news has an unsettling dark lining: deaths are declining, but hospitalizations are expected to climb.

Because older people in long-term care and retirement homes — and, increasingly, in the community at large — have been vaccinated, fewer are dying, according to Manuel.

At the same time, though, the B117 variant of concern is becoming the prominent strain of the virus in Ottawa, and it is more contagious and brings a significantly higher risk of hospitalization, even death, than the previous strain.

"We're going to see younger people hospitalized … but more people in their 40s, 50s and 60s being hospitalized who haven't been vaccinated yet," said Manuel.

And as the case-count increases, that means more pressure on important social institutions like hospitals and schools because staff members will be sick or forced to self-isolate at home.

In the race between the vaccine roll-out and the spread of the virus, right now, COVID-19 is winning.

Even if many people are reluctant to hear that message, Manuel would like officials to act now in hopes of keeping any sort of lockdown as short as possible. 

Our track record on acting fast to limit lockdowns isn't great. 

"When you do something later," he said, "it will mean that you're going to need to do it longer and to a greater extent."

It's a plea that, for now at least, doesn't quite seem to be being heard.