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Public health officials heeding lessons learned from SARS outbreak

ERICA NATIVIDAD AND NEWS STAFF | posted Friday, Apr 24th, 2020

Pressure continues to mount on the province to re-open the economy, but despite promising COVID-19 modelling numbers, government and health officials are still treading lightly on the issue.

Part of this may have to do with hard lessons from the past.

Back in 2003, there was a point where officials believed to have SARS contained only to have to deal with a second deadly wave of the infection.

When the virus first hit in March, extraordinary precautionary measures were taken under the direction of the Ministry of Health and Public Health officials. The focus was mainly on hospitals, where the virus was most likely to spread.

Twenty-seven people died in the first wave, but by mid-May, health officials believes the spread had been contained and precautionary measures were lifted.

But soon after, a second wave emerged after outbreaks at two facilities were missed.

Dr. Michael Gardam, an Infectious Disease Physician and the Chief of Staff at Humber River Hospital, worked on the frontlines of the SARS outbreak in Toronto and says the measures were definitely lifted too quickly.

“We were the only country in the world to have that happen and so we definitely opened up too quickly after SARS 1 there’s no doubt,” said Dr. Gardam.

He said he went through “absolute despair” when the second wave of the SARS virus hit.

“I remember it very well because we were all celebrating that SARS 1 was over,” said Dr. Gardam. “When we had to go back into all the isolation again, the mood definitely shifted. People were far more angry because they put up with this once, they were not planning on doing this again.”

The second outbreak claimed the lives of an additional 17 people.

At the time, some argued that the government was partly to blame and were too quick to declare the outbreak over in a rush to boost an economy that suffered greatly because of the virus.

Janet Ecker was the Finance Minister during the SARS outbreak says she doesn’t believe the economy was a factor in the province rushing to reopen.

“It was easy for the issue to be politicized and I’m not criticizing anyone for that, governments are held accountable for the decisions they make or don’t make,” said Ecker.

When she was asked if, looking back on it now, whether it was too soon, Ecker said, “I’ll let the historians make that judgment. It was a judgment call at the time that the government and health professions made about when it was safe. I think what it underlines is how important it is that we don’t rush this.”

As pressure continues to mount on politicians over questions about when the country and individual provinces might be able to reopen, Dr. Gardam says it’s all a balancing act and warns of what could happen if it happens too early.

“Let’s say hypothetically we open everything up today, we’ll be in a New York City situation within three weeks.”

More than 142,000 people in the New York City have tested positive for the virus and more than 10,000 people have died.

Premier Doug Ford said earlier this week, he was being lobbied hard to reopen various sectors of the economy in Ontario and urged patience to avoid a resurgence of COVID-19.

“I’m getting lobbied hard by so many groups and organizations, but it’s easy to say, ‘Open, open, open,’ until we get a second wave of this and it bites us in the backside,” Ford said. “I just ask people to be patient.”

As of Thursday, Ontario had reported 12,879 coronavirus cases and 713 deaths. Over 6,500 cases have been resolved.

Dr. Gardam says even if it appears as though Ontario has hit its peak, we’d still need to be on the downslope before looking at what restrictions can be lifted slowly. He adds we are in for a few more weeks of this before officials may even consider what can be opened up.

As for when things can go completely back to normal across the country, Dr. Gardam doesn’t believe that will happen until well into next year.

With files from The Canadian Press

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