Top Ontario pandemic advisers stress need for paid sick leave, more targeted help for high-risk communities

Top Ontario pandemic advisers stress need for paid sick leave, more targeted help for high-risk communities

Three of the province's top pandemic advisers said the province needs to offer more targeted help for the people who are at high risk of contracting the virus because they live in crowded housing and work in front-line jobs.

And the expert the premier says he listens to most of all — Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams — suggested implementing a paid sick leave is a "good example" of something the province could consider to help those communities.

The comments came at the province's latest COVID-19 modelling update, which are being held every two weeks on Thursdays.

The experts at this week's briefing said Ontario is at a fragile moment in the second wave of the pandemic, where there are signs of a flattening epidemic curve but a small number of outbreaks would set the province on a far worse trajectory. The modellers said the key indicators are flattening in some regions, including the hard-hit regions of Toronto and Peel, but it is difficult to determine whether there is a true turnaround in case growth so far.

"It is best described as a fragile or precarious situation," said Dr. Adalsteinn (Steini) Brown, adding that the province needs to see cases both flatten and decline. "We have not really turned a corner yet."

Brown presented information from the province's science advisory and modelling consensus tables that showed that one-size-fits-all approaches to the pandemic — such as lockdowns and broad restrictions — are not as effective in curtailing the pandemic in high-risk communities where high proportions of the population live in crowded housing and work in high-risk jobs.

"These are long-standing structural factors," said Brown.

Targeted interventions would mean grassroots work with local community leaders to make sure that there is support for people to isolate at home, to make sure that public health messaging is appropriate and effective and compelling, ensuring that the supports available are tailed to the needs of the community and making sure there are no barriers to testing, said Brown.

"And finally, there are top-down or system-level things like protection against eviction or income support, or sick pay, that can be quite helpful as well," he said.

Relying only on one-size-fits-all measures not only leaves the people in those communities exposed to the virus, it leads to more transmission of the virus across the province in the long run, said Brown.

Brown's comments on the need for more than one-size-fits-all interventions were echoed by Williams and outbreak coordinator Dr. Dirk Huyer.

Asked whether or not he thinks the province needs to implement paid sick leave, Williams spoke about the immediate challenges some families face when they need to self-isolate. "You gave a good example of one thing we have to consider everything that might help and assist in this matter, to drive down the second wave," he added.

The Doug Ford government has faced significant criticism for failing to implementing a paid sick leave policy for the pandemic and, upon taking office, cancelling a planned legislative change that would have given workers two paid sick days. While most workers are eligible for the federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit, but is not available immediately and at $500 per week for up to two weeks, critics say critics say it is not enough.

This modelling update also showed a slightly more optimistic trajectory than the last. In the three days prior to the last update, Ontario was experiencing a growth rate of about 5 per cent and 3 per cent over the week. This week, Ontario has been experience flat growth for the past three days, and growth of 1 per cent over the past week, said Brown.

The last round of modelling provided projections for Ontario at 3 per cent and 5 per cent rates of growth. In the lower scenario, Ontario’s daily new cases would surpass 3,000 by mid-December. At 5 per cent, which is more likely, the province would see about 6,500 new cases per day by that time, surpassing projections for European countries like the United Kingdom and France, which are already in lockdown.

The information provided in this update showed the province would reach those thresholds at those rates of growth a little later in December. However, the worst-case scenario for intensive care occupancy is no longer forecasted. However, the province won't see its intensive care cases decline until at least two weeks after a decline in cases and, so far, ICU occupancy has been continuing to increase and will hit 200 beds in December under any scenario, said Brown.

"And at that level, hospitals are facing significant capacity challenges," he said. "They are facing significant threats to the sustainability of their health human resource workforce. And they are making decisions to cancel postpone or delay treatments that are necessary."

But emphasizing that fragility, Brown said it is possible Ontario's case growth could exceed that 5 per cent growth rate.

-With files from Jack Hauen

Jessica Smith Cross

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