FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
OTTAWA - Horizon Ottawa and the Disability Justice Network of Ontario are calling on Dr. Vera Etches, Medical Officer of Health, and Ottawa Public Health (OPH) to maintain COVID health protections in light of the Ford government’s dangerous move today to lift the mask mandate and announcements earlier this month that saw the end of capacity limits and the vaccine certificate system.
In a statement to the media last week, Dr. Etches explicitly withdrew from protecting public health protections stating, "We're not planning locally to recommend further public health measures as provincial restrictions are lifted, but it is clear that individual behaviours can either drive or deter transmission.” However, we know that individual actions fail to protect the most vulnerable citizens, particularly people incarcerated in prisons & long-term care institutions.
“You’re on your own isn’t adequate public health policy during an ongoing pandemic” said Sam Hersh, a Horizon Ottawa Board Member. “Just like they did during the Ottawa Occupation, our local government is abandoning us in a critical time of need.”
The fact is OPH and Dr. Etches have the power under Section 22 of the Ontario Health Promotion and Protection Act, to “require a person to take or to refrain from taking any action in respect of a communicable disease” without approval from the provincial government. OPH and Etches have consistently refused to act on Section 22 and protect the lives of marginalized and immunocompromised people. This was evident in 2021, when OPH refused to publicly name and close businesses where COVID-19 outbreaks of 5 or more employees took place.
This shift to individual actions is particularly harmful given the lack of available data and testing––the testing data are limited to a small subset of the population. Even though the incidence of new COVID cases has been decreasing, there are still great uncertainties. COVID hospitalizations and wastewater viral signals have shown an uptick in recent days.
Individual actions are further limited by a slow uptake in the third vaccine dose, which is necessary to protect against the BA.1 Omicron variant––only 61% of Ottawans have received three (none in 5-11 year olds). Young children, and those working with young children, have very little protection if any. Furthermore, the 40% more contagious BA.2 Omicron variant is on its way to become dominant.
We must prevent needless deaths, and mass debilitatitation caused by COVID infection, including but not limited to significant neurological deficits, increased risk of stroke, and long COVID. More than 750 people have died from, and more than 2220 people have been hospitalized. The strain on hospitals, healthcare workers and patients is unsustainable and dangerous. Knowing that infections have rebounded every time restrictions were lifted, it makes little sense from a public health perspective to eliminate protections from a debilitating, and deathly airborne pandemic.
“Ottawa Public Health is accepting the needless death and infection of the people they deem disposable––immunocompromised, disabled, and incarcerated people, and unvaccinated children. We need to use every tool and strategy possible to prevent deaths––masking, vaccine passports, ventilation upgrades, or our collective neglect will kill”. Said Megan Linton on behalf of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. “The Ontario government is catering to business interests, but Dr. Etches and OPH can choose to protect Ottawa residents and communities.”
Horizon Ottawa and Disability Justice Network of Ontario are demanding Dr. Etches and OPH use all the tools at their disposal to maintain good public health measures such as keeping mask mandates and indoor capacity limits, but also increasing accessibility to testing (including home rapid tests). Dr. Etches and OPH should also demand that the province increase mandatory paid sick days, compensation for support workers, and provide rent relief for those who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Public-facing workers, children, and those most at-risk from COVID deserve better. We all deserve better.
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