Etches asks province to move Ottawa into 'grey' COVID-19 lockdown

Ottawa’s top doctor is calling for a new lockdown in the city, saying the spread of COVID-19 has reached an unprecedented point and new restrictions are needed to bring it under control.

“What I asked the chief medical officer of health to do is move us into the grey level,” Dr. Vera Etches said Wednesday. “Further restrictions in our city are needed in our city to manage this situation.”

Etches said it has become clear that the current red zone restrictions aren’t enough to stop the spread of the virus, and discussions with the province are underway to tighten restrictions further.

“We are at a point that we have never seen before in this pandemic,” Etches said. “We are seeing what we feared. The vaccine hasn’t arrived in time to outpace the growth in our community.”

Etches said she has asked for the city to be moved into the grey zone before the Easter long weekend.

Premier Doug Ford said earlier Wednesday to expect an announcement on Thursday about possible new restrictions in the province. Provincewide, there were a record 421 patients in critical care as of Tuesday morning.

CTV News Toronto reported Wednesday night that Ontario is expected to announce a month-long provincial shutdown on Thursday

Ottawa entered the ‘Red-Control’ zone less than two weeks ago, on March 19. Since then, the COVID-19 case count has grown. The city has recorded seven straight days of triple-digit new case counts, the longest such streak of the pandemic.

A move to the grey zone from the red zone would mean the following changes in Ottawa, among others:

  • Social gathering limits would no longer be allowed, instead of being capped at five
  • Indoor dining would no longer be allowed, instead of 50 per cent capacity
  • Indoor fitness would no longer be allowed, instead of a gym capacity of 10 people indoors
  • Personal care services, like salons, would be allowed to open as of April 12, but under reduced capacity
  • Retail capacity would fall to 50 per cent in groceries stores, from 75 per cent. Capacity for all other retailers would be 25 per cent, instead of 50 per cent.

In Ottawa, the rate of COVID-19 infections is 85 per 100,000 people, and Ottawa’s per cent positivity has soared to nearly six per cent.

“Our health care system is stretched. Cases are rising, hospitalizations are increasing, the testing centres are maxed out, and our case management team is no longer able to contact trace as we have in previous instances,” Etches said.

Etches said the virus continues to spread the most at private gatherings, including parties, after-work gatherings and team sports, and even at outdoor events such as barbecues and bonfires.

In particular, Etches cited the rapid growth of COVID-19 variants of concern in the city’s wastewater samples, which have been a reliable predictor of the virus’s spread.

Variants of concern in the wastewater grew from 10 per cent on March 20 to 50 per cent just five days later, she said. This shows the variants’ higher rate of transmission than the non-variant strain of the virus.

With the Easter weekend approaching, Etches implored residents to limit their close contacts to their immediate household.

“Do not gather with friends or extended family indoors. Do not share meals. Do find other ways to celebrate,” she said.

“If we don’t get levels of COVID-19 under control, we will see stronger lockdowns like we have seen in other countries around the world, and for longer.”

Schools should remain open

Despite the request move to the grey zone, Etches is still calling for schools to remain open.

"I am not advocating for schools to close. I have not made any comments or requests to the province about school closures," she said. "We know schools are an essential support for families. Many families don't know what they'll do to cope if schools are closed again."

Etches said that while the rising levels of COVID-19 in the community are a concern, and they are leading to larger numbers of school-aged children testing positive for COVID-19, she believes reducing transmission within the broader community remains the best way to ensure schools remain open unti the summer.

Dr. Lindy Samson, Chief of Staff with CHEO, echoed Etches' comments. 

"Schools are essential. We want to ask, if not plead with the public to do everything they can to follow public health restrictions each and every time, everywhere, to get this surge of activity under control," she said.

"The impact of the school closures on the overall wellbeing of children and youth and families in our community has been huge and we really want to avoid that."

It's different now

Etches says she knows she's been repeating the message of keeping physical distance, sticking to members of one's household, and wearing masks for much of the last year and she recognizes that these measures take a toll on people's mental and emotional wellbeing; however, she is stressing that the current situation Ottawa finds itself in is different compared to past waves.

"I definitely have said these kinds of things for a year—to distance, to wear masks—but it's different. Our context is different right now," she said. "One way is how stretched our health-care system is, with trying to not only provide procedures, care for COVID patients, do testing to extremely high levels again, vaccinate people. We have also the variants of concern. It's different now. They are leading to transmission in kinds of settings we haven't seen before, like outdoor sports.

"And we have an end in sight. We can see the vaccine will come and will protect our population to a much greater degree. I hope that can give people enough encouragement to hang on a little bit longer."

Etches said the grey restrictions from the provincial level may not be enough to fully contain the spread in Ottawa, but her main focus is on ensuring people fully understand the situation.

"We are thinking about how can we help people get the message that they should really only be gathering with people outside of their household with distance?" She said. "We know there are also provincial discussions underway. When I see what the province decides about Ottawa and I'll take a look at those gaps and whether anything local needs to be done."