By Shawn Whatley, January 4, 2021
COVID-19 has tested the Ford government, and Premier Doug Ford has mostly risen to the challenge. Live daily updates, plans, programs, and spending: It has been the main (only) policy issue for ten months. Ford’s COVID-19 response will define his legacy.
Ontario now has 2,250 new acute care beds, which include 1,492 new ICU beds with ventilators. Spring shortages have disappeared. PPE abounds. If the mood strikes, you could bathe in alcohol hand sanitizer, and no one worries about running out of toilet paper. A massive vaccination program has just launched, and untold hundreds of millions of dollars have distracted voter anxieties.
Yet after all this success, and more, Ford is declaring defeat, issuing another complete lockdown this week.
What evidence informs his decision? Are Ontario’s 3,504 critical care beds all full? Have COVID patients flooded Ontario’s roughly 24,000 acute-care hospital beds?
In the spring, the province shut down to flatten the curve and protect the health-care system. We needed time to build capacity, spread out demand. The first wave was sharp and short. At the peak, roughly 1,000 admitted COVID patients per day populated a curve that looked much like other epidemics. Most hospital beds remained empty and ICU beds unused.
Now, ten months later, we have hit 1,000 COVID patients in hospital again. Almost 270 of those patients are in ICU, approximately 180 on ventilators. But unlike the spring, we have 2,250 new hospital beds. If the beds were one giant COVID hospital, it would be less than half full of COVID patients today, and over 80% of the ICU would lie empty. My own almost-500-bed hospital on the outskirts of Toronto has only 20 COVID cases on the ward, five in ICU. We could care for over 80 ICU patients if necessary.
So why is the entire province facing a brutal provincewide lockdown over the ordinarily festive Christmas season?
Politicians are vote maximizing machines, so we cannot blame them for following votes. Given all the media concern about case counts, who would vote against lockdown? Salaried hospitals workers love lockdowns. It makes life so much easier and less risky for the same amount of effort. White-collar workers love them too. Why commute when you can telecommute for half the cost and none of the risk? Civil servants love lockdowns secure in their jobs, programming on hold.
To this, point, these groups have swayed politicians, winning the media debate over concerns about the economic devastation, the plight of customer-driven small businesses, isolated people suffering without family, and those who would emphasize a more sensible risk-benefit analysis that preserves individual freedoms to conduct business and personal affairs safely.
Part of the premier’s previously successful pandemic strategy was to accept that the pandemic situation varies greatly across this massive province. Colour-codes were assigned. Areas such as Ottawa and Eastern Ontario had lighter restrictions based on their manageable level of spread.