'Hospitals are buckling': Ontario's science table makes urgent push for stronger COVID-19 measures

WATCH: Peter Jüni, scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, shares his concerns about recent restrictive measures - and why he considered stepping down from his position.

The Ontario government’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table is calling for urgent and stronger action to reign in the spread of cases, noting the province’s hospitals are “buckling.”

“Ontario is now facing the most challenging health crisis of our time. Our case counts are at an all-time high. Our hospitals are buckling. Younger people are getting sicker. The disease is ripping through whole families,” a letter issued Tuesday afternoon on behalf of group’s 40 doctors, medical professionals and scientists said.

“The variants of concern that now dominate COVID-19 in Ontario are, in many ways, a new pandemic, and Ontario needs stronger measures to control the pandemic.”

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The advisory body, which has been in existence for nearly a year, focused on six areas that, in their words, would “reduce transmission, protect our health care system, and allow us to reopen safely as soon as possible.”

Topping the list of recommendations was reviewing the list of workplaces deemed essential by the Ontario government.

“This means permitting only truly essential indoor workplaces to stay open and strictly enforcing COVID-19 safety measures in those places,” the statement said.

“Essential workers must wear masks at all times while working indoors, or when close to others outdoors, and must be supported in doing so.”

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The Table also reiterated the need to ensure essential workers continue to receive pay if they need to stay home, are exposed to COVID-19, or need time to get a vaccine. The group said the current federal program is not enough.

“Workers who do often do so because they have no choice: they must feed their families and pay their rent. Compared to other models that appear to have limited spread, the federal is cumbersome and does not provide enough financial support,” the members wrote.

“An emergency benefit that offers more money, is easily accessible, immediately paid and that, for the duration of the pandemic, is available to essential workers … will help limit spread.”

The advisory body called for an acceleration of vaccinating essential workers in hot spot communities.

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“This means immediately allocating as many doses as possible to hotspot neighbourhoods, vulnerable populations, and essential workers,” the document said.

“It also means accelerating the distribution and administration of vaccines overall, making it easier for at-risk groups to get vaccinated, and promoting the vaccine with more intensive and effective on-the-ground community outreach.”

The medical experts also encouraged the provincial government to put in place regional travel restrictions due to an increase in variants of concern, stopping indoor gatherings with people from outside the immediate household, and maintaining outdoor activities in a safe way.

“This means allowing small groups of people from different households to meet outside with masking and two-metre distancing. It means keeping playgrounds open and clearly encouraging safe outdoor activities,” the group said.

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The statement came days after Ontario announced and then abandoned plans to close playgrounds and enhance police powers during an extended stay-at-home order, prompting widespread backlash.

The Table encouraged those enacting COVID-19 policies to look at those decisions through an equity lens in order to ensure those from racialized, vulnerable and marginalized communities aren’t harmed or neglected since the virus “already affects these groups disproportionately.”

The group also took aim at “inconsistent policies with no clear link to scientific evidence” and restrictions that discourage safe outdoor activity.

“ will not control COVID-19 and will disproportionately harm children and those who do not have access to their own greenspace, especially those living in crowded conditions,” the statement said.

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Global News contacted members of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table earlier on Tuesday to gauge reaction to the provincial government’s current public health measures. In response to those inquiries, several members responded and highlighted the advisory group’s official statement.

“I am very concerned that we haven’t done enough yet in Ontario to flatten the curve. Waiting to find out if we have risks what may be intolerable stress on our hospital system, many more deaths, and greater economic hardship in the slightly longer term,” Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist and an infectious disease consultant with Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, told Global News in a statement.

“I’m hoping that together — as individuals, employers and government — we can pause, reset and agree on an effective and equitable COVID-19 strategy to get us through the next few weeks.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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