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Getting back to normal after COVID-19

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With Ontario's top doctors announcing that the province's curve has crested, speculation has begun about whether restrictions can ease, and what that may look like. But local officials feel caution is still the best path.

Now is not the time to become complacent, according to Marcus Powlowski, MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River. As a former doctor, specializing in infectious diseases, he's watched the pandemic unfold, and like most of his colleagues, he's anticipating multiple peaks as the virus continues to circulate.

“Time will tell, but we can't let up yet,” he said.

Easing out of tight restrictions has been a hot topic on Parliament Hill. He attended a Standing Committee meeting last week to discuss just that, he said. One idea being floated by presenters is to ease and retighten restrictions in waves, to keep the spread at a manageable level for healthcare workers, he said.

This could continue until a vaccine, which is expected in 12-18 months from now, or until a treatment plan is devised. Currently, there is no cure, and no treatment beyond supplementing oxygen, or ventilation for severe cases. But treatments are currently in randomized trials which look promising in preliminary studies, he said.

The isolation measures being observed around the globe, “buys us time to come up with vaccines and better treatments and not overwhelm the healthcare system," he said. The alternative, of dropping isolation protocols, would come at "a heavy price. There would be a lot of unnecessary deaths.”

“We need to stay the course," he said. "Keep the social isolation, not start non-essential services.”

“In medicine, sometimes the best course is to sit on the fence, and not make a decision, when there's uncertainty," he said "With more time and more tests, the way forward becomes more clear.”

What we could see is a shift in how we mingle as a society, he speculated. As restrictions ease, perhaps it will become commonplace to wear a mask in public, like it is in China, he noted.

Dr. Ian Gemmill, Acting Medical Officer of Health for the Northwestern Health Unit, agreed that reopening society will need a sure and steady hand. He sees the current isolation practices could be part of easing back into normal life. Limiting the number of people in stores, and businesses providing hand sanitizer at doorways could be a normal part of life during an ease in restrictions, which should be unrolled in a “slow and thoughtful way,” he said.

Although he anticipates a slow return of businesses, Gemmill isn't sure about reopening schools before September. Children, on average, have displayed far more mild symptoms, he noted. Families might assume the child just has a mild cold, and send them to school where they would unknowingly infect other families. “Children may be an ongoing source in our community,” he said.

Gemmill so far has been pleased with the citizens of northern Ontario. Our region is one of the most tested per capita in Ontario, yet boasts one of the lowest rates of infection, he said. As of press time, the NWHU has reported 16 cases in its service area, with four being contracted at the Lac Des Iles palladium mine, north of Thunder Bay. Most of the local cases were in isolation before symptoms appeared, and have posed no risk to the general public, he noted.

But that doesn't mean we're out of the woods, or that its time to go back to business as usual.

“Maybe we've dodged a bullet in this first wave," said Gemmill. "I would be cautious.”

“It's a matter of what degree of illness we can tolerate and still go forward," he said. "That's what we've got to consider.”

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