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'Time to do something different': Duelling public letters offer Doug Ford advice as he plots 'targeted' COVID-19 response

A group of health-care workers and academics are pushing against widespread lockdowns to restrain COVID-19, saying that after six months of pain “it’s time to do something different.”

Their proposed new approach to coronavirus disease spread includes targeted intervention only and listening to business people and artists and not just public health and disease specialists.

The open letter signed by 20 people with medical and academic affiliations was sent to Ontario Premier Doug Ford urging him to resist imposing another province-wide lockdown on facilities and movement as COVID case numbers dramatically increase in the province.

It is the latest in a flurry of open letters to the premier from health associations, organizations and professionals in a battle for the hearts and minds of Ford and his ministers as they plot the province’s response to a second wave of COVID-19 spread.

The letters comes as Ontario experiences a significant spike in COVID-19 cases.

On Wednesday, the province reported 625 new cases and four additional deaths. New modelling projections on the spread of the virus into the fall predicted daily case counts of more than 1,000 as early as the first half of October.

As the province mulls its full response, Ford said he was focusing on “targeted actions.”

“Everything is on the table,” Ford said of the province’s COVID response, but added he preferred the targeted actions of a “scalpel” over a heavy-handed “hatchet.”

“We aren’t rolling back (to lockdown) today. I’m not saying it’s never going to happen but today that’s not a conversation that’s going to happen in cabinet.”

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, said he is unlikely to recommend another total lockdown, or a “broad strokes” response, eyeing instead regional responses.

“It’s a different time,” Williams said,

He did, however, say something must to be done to again flatten the curve of disease spread.

“It worked once, we know we can do it,” he said. “We can flatten this one down, too.”

The new letter urges against a return to wide lockdowns.

“Lockdowns have been shown not to eliminate the virus. While they slow the spread of the virus, this only lasts as long as the lockdown lasts,” the letter says.

“This creates a situation where there is no way to end the lockdown, and society cannot move forward in vitally important ways including in the health sector, the economy and other critically important instrumental goods including education, recreation, and healthy human social interactions.”

That lenient approach is at odds with urgent warnings issued by several other health professionals.

A letter from the Ontario Hospital Association this week urged tougher measures in areas of Ontario with the highest case counts: Toronto, the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa.

“We can no longer expect to gain control of this unforgivable virus with the current level of socialization underway in Ontario,” the OHA letter says.

“The truth of the matter is that if some targeted restrictions are not put into place now, the province will inevitably face a full-scale shutdown in the weeks ahead as we experience unsustainable levels of community spread.”

Another letter this week from Community Health Ontario, a coalition of community health-care organizations urged a return to restrictions on indoor dining and bars, places of worship, weddings, gyms, movie theatres and other non-essential businesses.

“Without public health measures in place to limit opportunities for disease transmission, Ontario will soon see higher numbers of hospitalizations, admissions to intensive care units, significant strain on long-term care homes, community health-care agencies, and more deaths,” that coalition letter said.

Ford is aware of the duelling opinions.

Ford said health and the economy are both important but there was a clear hierarchy.

“Health is number one,” he said. “The economy right beside it.”

“We’re measuring again between health and safety — the number one priority — and the economy.”

He said his government is weighing information carefully and listening widely as it decides how to respond to the new wave of COVID cases: “We take a very measured approach. I listen to everyone… I’ll always listen to health and science,” Ford said.

In response to new outbreaks, targeted restrictions have been reintroduced, reducing the operating hours for bars and restaurants and closing strip clubs.

Those actions may make the signatories to the new letter uncomfortable. Their letter urges the premier not to return to a lockdown.

“In Ontario and other parts of the world, such as the European Union, increasing case loads are not necessarily translating into unmanageable levels of hospitalizations and ICU admissions,” the letter says.

It says restrictions may do more harm than good and asks for a “public debate” on the merits.

The letter points to overdose deaths, cancelled surgery and delays in cancer diagnostics during COVID restrictions as factors that should be weighed in any analysis of the benefits of lockdowns.

It calls for expanded consultation beyond public health and infectious disease specialists as the government maps a COVID-19 response — including business people and artists.

“All have the right to feel their voices have been heard, and moreover to ensure factual credible data is openly debated, in contrast to the personal and political slants that have had apparent significant impacts on the management of the virus to date,” the letter says.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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