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York Region's top doctor calls for return to red level as Toronto, Peel seek lockdown extension

Dr. Karim Kurji says York is looking at 'the whole community as our patient'
Feb. 19, 2021

A day after the top doctors for two of the three Ontario regions hardest hit by COVID-19 called on the province to extend their lockdowns to bring the virus further under control, York Region's medical officer of health is calling for the opposite.

On Wednesday, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, and Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel Region's medical officer of health, urged the province to extend lockdowns in their regions for at least an additional two weeks to get a better handle on the coronavirus variants spreading there.

But in a statement Thursday morning, Dr. Karim Kurji said he is recommending the province allow York Region to re-enter Ontario's colour-coded COVID-19 restriction system, coming out of lockdown and going instead into the red-control zone.

The red-control zone is the second-strictest category of the province's tiered restrictions system. Under that category, people can access fitness facilities and dine indoors at restaurants, with limits on capacity.

"We understand our neighbouring public health units have their own separate set of challenges and I respect their assessments," Kurji said.

"We prefer to look at the whole community as our patient," he said, adding "it is clear businesses are suffering greatly and with that comes loss of jobs and incomes, an important social determinant of health."

Decision rests with province
Kurji says his recommendation factors in York Region's incidence rates, which he says are beginning to plateau, as well as a drop in outbreaks at long-term care homes and hospitalizations. Still, he acknowledges the region's hospitals are "quite pressurized" and also taking patients from across the province.

If approved, the impact York's reopening could have on the case counts in neighbouring Toronto and Peel Region remains to be seen.

Kurji's statement doesn't address the possible impacts of inter-regional travel on York's hospital capacity. Nor does it acknowledge the potential for residents of those regions coming into York Region to access non-essential retail, indoor dining or religious spaces.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said he has recommended further restrictions on top of those prescribed in the provincial guidelines, should York Region be allowed to move into the red-control level. Those measures include:

Despite the potential partial re-opening, Scarpitti said "it is important that residents continue to stay home as much as possible and only go out for essential trips."

The recommendation comes despite York Region having 258 variant of concern cases, 62 of which are currently active, with seven people hospitalized as a result and one dead.

Still, the statement says, the region is "not seeing explosive growth at this point" and has "a reasonable handle on these cases."

"With enhanced restrictions in the Red-Control Zone, along with our strategies for aggressive case and contact investigation and enforcement, we can keep this in check," Kurji said in the statement.

Nevertheless, it acknowledges, officials have noticed some "underground activity" contributing to transmission of the virus, such as personal services being offered out of people's homes, such as aesthetic services.

Kurji says giving the option to people to do their work in regulated environments will hopefully discourage other such incidents.

With more access to vaccines on the horizon, the hope is there will be fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths.

"We are hopeful for the future," Kurji said.

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford suggested Thursday his government would grant a request from Toronto and Peel Region to remain under a stay-at-home order for two more weeks.

A decision on those two regions, as well as York Region and North Bay, which also remain under a stay-home order, is expected Friday.

Ford said Thursday that he's "always supported local medical officers of health."