Let’s not jump the gun

Many years ago, I watched a loved one die, literally in my arms, fighting for his every last breath. It is a horrible memory that I cannot forget. I would not wish such a death on anyone. But this is exactly how our loved ones are dying from COVIDS-19.

If you want to experience what they are experiencing, place a drenched cloth over your face and try to breath. You will struggle, fight and gasp to get air into your lungs. Eventually, you’ll rip the cloth away to freely take a deep breath. Sadly, there is no cloth to rip away for our dying COVIDS-19 victims. This is a horrible virus that can go from a slight cough and fever to an impressive case of pneumonia needing immediate medical intervention to survive. This is a virus that does not target older adults and seniors. It can infect anyone. It has killed babies, teenagers, and young adults. To date, experts do not know why some young people without underlying illnesses have died from this infection.

However, we do know that physical distancing and self-isolation is the only way to end this virus. We know from experiences with other outbreaks that if the infected are isolated, if we ensure infection control precautions within our health care facilities and if we require physical distancing, we can burn out the virus. In effect, we stop the spread by preventing exposure to the infected. But this can only happen with time. If governments jump the gun and acquiesce to the demands to reopen businesses, to drop the restrictions, to restart the economy, then we risk a second wave of the virus.

As I recall, the second wave of the SARS outbreak in 2003 was worse than the first wave. On May 14, 2003, under great political pressure the World Health Organization removed Toronto from the SARS travel restrictions list because there had been 20 days free of any new cases. Under similar political pressures to open Ontario for business, the Premier announced that the SARS Outbreak was over. At the time, this was considered a safe decision as the SARS virus incubation period was only 10 days.

As a result, restrictions were relaxed. The earlier provincial orders about enhanced infection control practices including the prohibition on hospital visitors were rescinded. Governments placed advertisements designed to assure the public that Toronto was safe and open for business. The Ontario Cabinet even had lunch at a Toronto restaurant in Chinatown to reassure the public and to encourage some misguided people to stop their xenophobic and racist reactions to our Chinese residents.

On May 20, just six days later, five patients at a rehabilitation hospital were reported as probable SARS cases. On May 23, the hospital was closed to admissions and visitors. The second wave of SARS was about to hit Toronto. The province issued new orders requiring infection control precautions in the GTA hospitals including 10 day quarantines for health care workers from these effected hospitals.

This SARS crisis finally ended in late June, early July. While SARS only infected 400 Canadians, its relatively high mortality rate of 10-17% resulted in 44 deaths with 85% being Toronto residents, many of them healthcare workers.

Recent emails, phone calls and talk shows are prompting this deja vu moment for me. Some people sincerely believe that all levels of government have over reacted. They sincerely believe that we should collectively relax these restrictions. Allow people to gather in public places. Allow people to return to work. Open restaurants. Open theatres. In essence, let’s get back to normal. Let’s get back to work. Candidly, the president of our southern neighbour is likely enticing some of these reactions.

Unfortunately, relaxing restrictions too quickly without the proper safeguards can unintentionally create a boomerang effect or a second wave with devastatingly new and even longer restrictions. I continue to fully support the Prime Minister, the Premier, the Mayor and our local Emergency Operations Centre. They are doing their best to guide us through this public health emergency, to minimize the loss of life, to abate further transmissions and to minimize the length of business shut-downs. Easing restrictions too early truly does risk a second wave which will only serve to increase the loss of life and delay our economic recovery. If my advice was sought out, I would strongly encourage our leaders to stay the course, follow the advice of our expert Medical Officers of Health and resist the urge to jump the gun.

As for the rest of us, let’s stay united. Let’s respect any orders to self-isolate because of exposure or infection. Let’s stay at home except for essential trips. Let’s maintain physical distancing to protect ourselves and our families. Lastly, let’s remember our exhausted frontline health care workers, who are risking their lives every day to save other lives. Surely, we can do our part and stand united against COVID-19.