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SMDHU's top doctor: Ontario is lifting restrictions too soon

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Simcoe Muskoka's top doctor said he thinks the province is lifting restrictions too soon.

As of 12:01 a.m. Thursday, capacity limits at most indoor establishments, including restaurants and movie theatres, will be eliminated. Social gatherings will increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, and capacity at sports and concert venues, like the Sadlon Arena, will jump to 50 per cent.

"My own view is that it's happening a little early," said Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU).

"It's earlier than the province really originally indicated, and there is an increased risk."

The premier announced the modified plan on Monday, adding the public would "just have to be careful" and learn to live with COVID-19.

"We are done with it," Premier Doug Ford said about limiting public activity. "We also know that it doesn't matter if you have one shot or 10 shots, you can still catch COVID-19."

Still, Gardner said the risk remains high with what he considers high-level circulation.

"As these limits are lifted, the risk persists, and just because they are being lifted doesn't mean there isn't risk," Gardner said.

"People need to keep up these precautions to reduce the likelihood of themselves becoming cases and to determine for themselves what they would choose to partake of or expose themselves to knowing that the risk persists."

Over the last week, there have been nearly 1,100 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections confirmed throughout the fifth wave to 17,447.

On Wednesday, during a COVID-19 briefing, Gardner confirmed that there had been more confirmed cases in this latest wave than in all previous waves of the pandemic combined.

The health unit reports 43 people are in the hospital with COVID-19, including 12 in ICU.

"We still have a very high incidence of cases, quite a substantial amount of transmission still happening in our communities, which really drives home the point that people need to be very cautious now in avoiding transmission and becoming a case even though we are improving quite significantly, as is the province," Gardner noted.

VACCINATION STATUS

The health unit's data shows that 55 per cent of adults over 18 have had a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with about 700 appointments currently booked.

Gardner said the health unit has the ability to increase capacity, with walk-in appointments now being accepted at community clinics.

"Two dose vaccination provides some protection against severity but not really against becoming a case, a transmission," Gardner says. "Three dose vaccination provides a fair amount of protection against transmission and much higher protection against severity including hospitalization, ICU."

Starting Friday, anyone aged 12 to 17 will be eligible for a booster shot, as long as it's been 168 days since their second dose.

After holding three successful clinics at schools in recent weeks, Gardner said the health unit is planning more.

"We found that there's a really strong indication of interest via parents who've signed contents to receive vaccination for their children in schools. Some, 2,600 consent forms have come back via Simcoe County District School Board."

MOVING FORWARD WITH FEWER RESTRICTIONS

As restrictions ease, Simcoe Muskoka's top doc said he would be paying close attention to key metrics over the next few weeks, including hospitalizations, to see if the loosened restrictions have a positive or negative impact.

He said the province is trending at a best-case scenario based on the most recent modelling from the science advisory board, but that the board suggested a rise in transmission could be seen between now and next week.

"As medical officers of health, we will need to monitor the trajectory and see if it starts to reverse itself and possibly result in a second wave or surge of Omicron," Gardner said.

The SMDHU's top doctor noted that trying to predict an unpredictable pandemic leads to high frustration.

But, Gardner said he remains optimistic that most residents have faith in the public health unit.

"People have to decide for themselves who they will trust, and all we can do in public health is do our very, very best to be trustworthy and to provide good information to the best of our ability.

That is what we strive to do, and I believe that most people still turn to us as a trusted and reliable source of information and guidance even if there are many who do not."

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