By Ian Pattison

About the only good things to be said about COVID-19 in Thunder Bay this week are that vaccines are being administered and the variants haven’t found their way here yet. The case count, however, is on a disturbing incline. There were 40 new cases reported on Friday, 32 Saturday and 29 more Sunday bringing total active infections to 229, a record. There are 12 people hospitalized (the COVID unit has 13 beds) including three in intensive care. Twenty-seven people have died from the virus.

The regional hospital has moved its vaccination site across the street to a Lakehead University building where added capacity means that between 500 and 600 injections a day will be possible by next week. And vaccines, for a change, are arriving in time to meet initial demand. By the time this weekend is over, 3,700 initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine will have been administered and 1,900 second doses to priority subjects. (This week, researchers found that for many people, one dose appears to be enough to provide 92-per-cent protection.)

As the caseload grows, however, the hospital is preparing to expand its specialized COVID treatment unit which means less room for other patients. Surgeries that require long-term stays will have to be delayed while short-stay or one-day operations will be moved up.

Meanwhile, criticism of the federal government for shipment delays by drug makers has largely given way to concerns over how provinces are handling their COVID situations. Ontario is being widely questioned over its decision to re-open business activities despite the spread of more infectious virus variants in parts of the province.

Toronto Mayor John Tory and neighbouring Peel Region’s medical health officer have said they wish to remain in their current lockdown situations until March 9 rather than moving to the colour-coded system on Monday. Premier Doug Ford reluctantly agreed on Friday, extending the “stay at home” order for another two weeks there and in North Bay where an outbreak at a quarantine hotel has locals worried.

"I have never been as worried about the future as I am today," Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said Wednesday afternoon. She was joined by Peel’s MoH and, notably, Dr. David McKeown, chair of the Ministry of Health Public Health Measures Table, in saying the province needs to seriously reconsider its reopening strategy.

De Villa took pains to emphasize her concern. "By the time the confirmed case counts are big enough to shock us it will be too late to do anything, we will be in a third wave as bad as anything we have been through thus far," she warned.

It’s like playing chicken in a hatchback against a transport truck.

Ford has repeatedly said he follows the advice of medical experts in rendering his decisions but he’s being more resistant lately. He doesn’t always take kindly to others’ observations either.

On Wednesday in the legislature, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed others in saying the government is in too much of a hurry to ease COVID-19 restrictions. “When will the premier actually start listening to the hospitals, to the doctors, to his own experts and prevent this province from going into yet another third wave and lockdown?” she asked.

Ford lost his cool, saying that “It’s like listening to nails on a chalkboard, listening to you.”

Some opposition MPPs then took their turns overdoing it, accusing Ford of being sexist and misogynistic. Finger nails aren’t gender specific but Ford could have used less pointed language.

Horwath also raised Ford’s dander by leading the fight in the legislature for the province to introduce paid sick days for Ontario workers as the pandemic decimates their bank accounts, a move Premier Doug Ford vehemently opposes.

Ford has argued that the federal government’s emergency program for workers who need to stay home because of COVID-19 should be enough. And yet as many as 25 per cent of workers in a Peel Region study who had COVID symptoms still went to work because they said they couldn’t afford not to.

If Ford is serious about keeping COVID at bay, he’ll know that paying sick people to stay home will ultimately cost a lot less than allowing virus spread to again threaten all business activity if a third wave takes hold. Even some business leaders have sided with Horwath on paid sick leave. But Doug Ford is, first and foremost, the “Open For Business” guy, punctuating it by changing the province’s licence plate slogan from “Yours To Discover.”

If Ford was indeed a friend of business, he wouldn’t have issued a series of confusing and contradictory orders to ostensibly protect the province against COVID by forcing small businesses and independent retailers to close while allowing big-box stores to remain open to hundreds of shoppers at time. It’s a perplexing double standard. Ford didn’t even order the Walmarts of the world to rope off their non-essential departments, though he finally allowed ski hills to re-open with chairlift riders required to be of the same family and chalets kept closed.

Overall, COVID cases are declining. Ontario has joined other provinces in bending the infection curve back down and while not yet nearly flat, we’re headed in the right direction. If it weren’t for the arrival of at least three variations in the virus, a careful emergence from lockdowns would be appropriate. But the variants are moving into more communities. New federal modelling shows variants could fuel a surge of 20,000 new cases per day by mid-March if public health restrictions are relaxed too quickly. Thunder Bay is among places where the original strain too is proving to be persistent against most people’s best efforts.

In a public health crisis, any disconnect between politicians and medical expertise can only only add to confusion for the public and, ultimately, to more people taking precautions less seriously.

This is not the time to let up. Fewer restrictions and more intermingling cannot help but threaten the progress we’ve made until now. Emerging from a cold snap and with spring closer than ever, it’s easy to forget how deadly serious we all were about beating back this pandemic. Remember washing your groceries?

Ontario mustn’t squander its successes. We must be patient a little while longer until vaccinations begin to catch up to COVID. The premier knows this because his health advisors have told him so.

If Ford isn’t careful, he will squander his status as popular everyman’s nice guy to those who are preaching COVID restraint and who may even have designs on his job. One suspects that John Tory has thought more than once about seeing his name on the door of the premier’s office.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.