Should there be regional phase-outs of COVID-19 restrictions? Not a good idea, health officials say

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Taking a region-by-region approach to loosening COVID-19 restrictions in the province would not be a step in the right direction, according to two medical officers of health in southwestern Ontario.

“You could see migration from those trouble spots into places that are not trouble spots,” said Dr. David Colby, Chatham-Kent’s medical officer of health, referring to what could happen if regions in Ontario with fewer COVID-19 cases relaxed restrictions earlier than others.

The idea stems from a CBC News analysis that found more than three-quarters of active COVID-19 cases listed in the province’s database are located in the public health units of Toronto, Peel, York, Durham and Halton regions. 

Those numbers, combined with the Ottawa, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex public health units, account for about 90 per cent of the province’s new infections since May 10.

“If we opened more than Windsor-Essex, I can see people coming to Chatham-Kent from Windsor-Essex and creating a problem here,” Dr. David Colby said.

As of Wednesday, there were nine active cases of COVID-19 in Chatham-Kent compared to 202 active cases in Windsor-Essex, using data provided by the province.

‘We are a very integrated society’

It’s a similar sentiment being echoed by Dr. Chris Mackie, the medical officer of health for Middlesex-London, despite the fact neighbouring regions haven’t reported a surge in active cases of COVID-19. 

“We are a very integrated society, especially in southwestern Ontario, in terms of how we live, work and play … from Windsor at least to Kingston, if not Ottawa,” he said. 

“A pandemic by its nature crosses all of those jurisdictional boundaries and so it can never be contained to one area relative to the others.”

There’s not enough data to suggest London-Middlesex would avoid an influx of COVID-19 cases if restrictions were loosened in the region, according to Dr. Mackie. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Dr. Mackie said a regional phase-out of COVID-19 restrictions could work “if things really start to diverge over the next couple of months” and added there would need to be data to back the move.

“Even in places where cases have been low, we are walking a tightrope and any false steps could easily bring this very infectious and severe virus back into higher numbers in [Middlesex-London].”

In theory, there’s at least one area of the province where a regional phase-out of COVID-19 restrictions might be more suitable.

“That type of regional approach is easier adapted to jurisdictions in northern Ontario,” said Dr. Colby. “They have very low rates to begin with and the geography prevents people from relocating to take advantage of different services.”

Ontario against regional approach

The idea of regional phase-outs of COVID-19 restrictions is nothing new — Quebec used the approach as it delayed the opening of elementary schools, daycares and businesses in Montreal by several weeks compared to the rest of the province.

At the time, Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters his government would only reopen parts of the province based on two main factors: how fast the virus is spreading and the availability of hospital beds. 

Earlier this month, Dr. Kieran Moore, Kingston’s medical officer of health, wrote a letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford asking him to ease restrictions on a region-by-region basis.

However, Ford later rejected the request, saying, “we have to run the province as one unit.”

Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical health officer, is also opposed to the idea.

“Let’s say hairstyling in one [public health unit] is open and the others not. So then everybody in this one just drives over, gets their hairstyled in that one, and so you bring all those infections over there.”

According to a CBC News analysis, just eight areas account for 90 percent of all confirmed COVID cases since May 10th. Should restrictions be lifted outside those areas? We asked the medical officers of health for Chatham-Kent and London-Middlesex. 9:46

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