National Post (Latest Edition)
Ontario’s new modelling should ease the panicking
Simple math: More tests yield more cases
Ontario Pr e m i e r Doug Ford has cast himself as the province’s COVID- 19 frightener- in- chief. That’s not useful, not well- supported by the facts, and it undermines everything his government has been trying to do.
On Monday, Ford said the 700 new cases announced that day were “deeply disturbing,” and that the province was now in a second wave that “will be more complicated, more complex. It will be worse than the first wave we faced earlier this year.” Then he topped that by saying the wave could turn into a “tsunami” if people didn’t follow proper COVID safety procedures.
Ford offered nothing to back up his dire predictions, but the thought was that Wednesday’s release of the province’s latest COVID modelling projection would do that for him. It did not. Instead, the presentation by provincial health experts was a balanced and detailed analysis of a potential problem.
The daily case count is always the number that makes headlines in this pandemic. It means a lot less than one might think. Daily numbers that are about as high as last spring’s peak suggest that we’re right back where we started, but we’re not. Testing volume now is four times as great as it was back then. More tests equal more cases. More important is the percentage of tests that yield a positive result. In the spring it was 7.5 per cent. Now, it’s 1.5 per cent. If Ontario had the testing capacity in the spring that it has now, the first wave’s numbers would easily have dwarfed those we are seeing this week.
The modelling looks at three possible scenarios for the months ahead, and again, there is nothing panic- inducing there. The key element is the likely effect of rising case numbers on intensive care beds. The experts say that the province can look after up to 350 COVID patients in intensive care before the volume begins to cut into other hospital demands, particularly the effort to reduce the COVID- induced surgical backlog.
The first scenario assesses what might happen if the virus follows its spring pattern, but with a younger population affected. In other words, what’s happening now. That creates no hospital bed issue at all. In fact, Ontario is tracking below even that projection, with just 35 COVID patients in intensive care. During the spring, there were up to 264 people in ICU beds.
The next scenario looks at the experience of Michigan and contemplates what happens if the latest phase of the Ontario pandemic affects a mix of older and younger people. This could happen, but even if it does, the ICU bed limit won’t be exceeded.
The only scenario that shows a problem is one based on the Australian state of Victoria, and it estimates what might happen if the virus affects primarily older and vulnerable people. That one would mean a partial curtailment of surgeries, although there’s no reason to assume the disease will follow that path in Ontario.
Even if it does, there is the capacity to expand the number of beds available for COVID patients, as Health Minister Christine Elliott made clear Monday.
Ford’s message has been wildly variable. After his warning of doom on Monday, Ford took a different tack Wednesday, reprising familiar lines about healthcare heroes, the merits of his own health team and the fighting spirit of Ontarians.
It’s no wonder people don’t know what to think.
Prime among them is the Ontario Hospital Association, which has urged a return to Stage 2 shutdowns in the parts of the province with the most cases. The association is concerned about the pandemic overwhelming hospital capacity, but that seems unlikely based on the province’s analysis.
The biggest fear in the next few months ought to be an overreaction that further restricts personal freedoms and economic activity without the facts to justify it.
The government’s actions so far are appropriate to the scale of the problem, but when Ford warns of impending doom, it undermines that message and it creates fear in people who need confidence to work, shop and send their kids to school.
Ford might also want to note that opposition parties and unions have maintained a steady stream of criticism, suggesting that his government has done little or nothing to combat the next phase of the pandemic. It’s not true, but his hyperbole gives the accusations credibility.
Full marks to the provincial government, though, for making public the expert assessment that informs the government’s pandemic plan.
Information is a wonderful antidote to fear.