New, alarming data about the high positivity rates of COVID-19 testing in some areas of Peel and Toronto should prompt the government to take stronger actions to stop transmission of COVID-19 before the health-care system collapses, a senior scientist said Monday.
ICES, an independent but provincially-funded research institution granted special access to Ontario health-care data, released a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood breakdown of the per cent of positivity rates for COVID-19 testing in the province — showing some parts of the GTA had rates of nearly 20 per cent from Nov. 1 to 7.
Dr. Jeff Kwong, senior core scientist and program lead with the Populations and Public Health Research Program, said those high rates should not be "socially acceptable" and reflect both high levels of disease among the people who live in those areas and barriers to testing.
He told QP Briefing he's among those calling on the province to take stronger actions to prevent the disease spread.
"I think that we can't continue on our current course otherwise our health-care system will collapse," he said, adding that physicians in other jurisdictions have been forced to send patients with COVID home to die.
"We've been lucky we haven't had to make decisions like that in Ontario, yet," he said.
The @ICESOntario #COVID19 dashboard can drill down to the percent positivity in the 30 Forward Sortation Areas (FSA) in Ontario with the highest percent positivity for the week of Nov. 1-7. *An FSA is the first three characters of a postal code. 5/6 pic.twitter.com/kttNmbDM2B
— ICES (@ICESOntario) November 16, 2020
Kwong said it was important to release the information to the public so that the people who live in those areas can be aware of the situation, but also so that others can advocate for more support for the people who live in those areas — for example, by ensuring they have access to paid sick leave so people don't have to choose between staying home and getting paid, he said.
The areas with positivity rates above 15 per cent are in north Brampton, Malton, Rustic/Maple Leaf in North York and Thorncliffe Park east of Toronto's core.
The areas with higher positivity rates have lower income and more ethnically diverse populations, according to data from ICES. Kwong said those factors are proxies for factors influencing disease transmission, such as living in crowded housing and working in high-risk jobs.
Monday was the first time ICES released that information publicly after previously sharing it with the provincial government, Kwong said.
It comes as positivity rates have been a matter of heated public debate in Ontario.
On Friday, the province revised thresholds for triggering additional public health restrictions in its colour-coded COVID framework. The initial version of the framework said a positivity rate of 10 per cent would indicate a public health unit should be in the red zone — the top level of restriction before a lockdown would be instituted. After backlash from public health experts, including those the province consulted in the creation of the framework, the red zone threshold was revised to 2.5 per cent.
"That was partly why we felt compelled to make these data publicly available," said Kwong, referring to the framework. He said the ICES data show the per cent positivity rates in the public health units overall look comparatively rosy to the data for some of the neighbourhoods within them.
While the data are at a granular geographic level, that doesn't mean restrictions should be put in place at that level — they should remain targeted to the entire public health unit and possibly the neighbouring ones as well where the virus has the potential to spread, he said. "We can't be complacent."