Ottawa

Experts call for lockdown measures now to deal with COVID-19 surge

As a second wave of COVID-19 hits Ottawa, experts in the region are calling on the province to shut down activities again and bring the virus under control.

They say it's time to restrict non-essential business and activities again

A man passes a mural covering the windows of the Chateau Lafayette tavern in Ottawa in May. Experts say Ontario needs to further claw back pandemic rules, but differ whether it should be more or less strict than spring. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As a second wave of COVID-19 hits Ottawa, experts in the region are calling on the province to shut down activities again and bring the virus under control.

An open letter signed by nearly 40 doctors from across Ontario released Thursday says Ontario must restrict non-essential businesses and activities that cause people to gather, such as dine-in restaurants and bars, gyms, theatres, nightclubs and churches.

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa who wasn't part of the letter, agrees the province must act.

"Non-essential, entertainment types of things should close right away," he said on Wednesday.

The shutdown may not need to be as severe as the steps taken in March, said Deonandan, citing mask and distancing policies as examples of progress.

Ontario may be able to avoid closing all non-essential businesses, he said, holding out hope places such as museums and gyms can stay open.

A server wears a mask as she works among the plexiglass dividers at a bar's outdoor patio in the ByWard Market in July. Epidemiologists are calling for indoor restaurant and bar service to close. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

He predicts with some confidence that many schools in Ottawa will be closed by December. 

"I'm being pessimistic when I say I don't anticipate them staying open, but I'm rooting for them to stay open."

According to a draft of Ontario's pandemic preparedness plan leaked to CBC, Ontario wants to avoid imposing lockdown-style measures to combat a second wave of COVID-19, but is prepared to take "targeted action" such as closing certain higher-risk businesses.

Draconian measures needed, says modeller 

Robert Smith? (the question mark is part of his name) is a mathematician at the University of Ottawa who models infectious diseases.

He is calling for "draconian" thinking and a full-scale lockdown now, with greater travel restrictions than in the spring.

"You kind of have to be kind of ruthless," said Smith? on Wednesday.

Ontario faces a choice, he said, between long-term or short-term pain.

If it goes into lockdown for a few months, he said the province could bring numbers down to zero new infections.

In that situation, through testing and contact tracing, the province would have the chance to stamp out any outbreaks that pop up.

"The best opportunity you have to deal with the disease is in the early stages."

If we carry on as we have been he said infections will surge again and again, foiling contact tracers and making more people sick. 

"We have lots of leaks and the more leaks you have, the more the chances are that something is going to slip through."

Raywat Deonandan thinks museums such as the National Gallery of Canada and gyms may be able to stay open safely should they maintain physical distancing. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

His vision of an effective lockdown goes a step further than what Deonandan and others are calling for, saying that school closures are necessary because they keep both kids and parents largely at home.

In the future, bars and schools should only be allowed to reopen after two weeks without new cases, argues Smith?.

September surge predicted months ago

Smith?, Deonandan and many others foresaw a second wave coming this month.

In May, CBC Ottawa published a story that included Smith? with the headline "Epidemiologists brace for 2nd wave of COVID-19 — and it may come in September."

In the future, both think Ontario should take a more aggressive approach to lockdowns and trend more conservative in reopening.

"I think what they should be doing is taking the worst case scenario, maybe taking a political risk and overreacting," said Deonandan, who holds out hope for a vaccine by 2021.

"People have to remember, this is not the rest of your lives. This is just for a number of months."

While a lockdown's costs to the economy, mental health and physical activity are part of the equation, Deonandan and Smith? say acting on a more pessimistic view of COVID-19 prevents tragic outcomes.

With some statistics around case numbers at or near their highest point in Ottawa, they expect its rise in deaths to continue over the next few weeks. 

"I totally understand this has been very, very frustrating for people," said Smith?.

"I get all the arguments. You don't want to ruin the economy. But the problem is, you're going to ruin the economy if you don't deal with the disease immediately."

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.

With files from Mike Crawley

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