Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Thank you for your invitation to speak with the committee today. I'm appearing here as a co-chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, a mostly volunteer group of 54 scientists drawn from across medical, scientific and mathematics disciplines.
We are not part of the provincial government. We operate entirely independently. While some of our members, including me, are public health professionals who may also work for government agencies, we do not operate as part of the public health apparatus of Ontario. We don't issue public health orders or recommendations. We don't advise communities on public health practices.
Our sole job is to seek out and analyze the scientific evidence that will help the government, public health and health professionals, and Ontarians fight the battle against COVID-19. We regularly brief different parts of the Government of Ontario. We make all of our work available to the public.
Today I am happy to share our thinking about what the scientific evidence tells us about the situation in Ontario, but I would ask the committee to bear a few things in mind as we have this discussion.
The first is that as an independent science table, it is not appropriate for us to comment on government policy. We can tell you what the numbers are and what they mean. We can say what the evidence tells us about measures that give us the best chance against COVID. We can tell you whether we see those things happening. However, it's not appropriate for us to review, criticize or assess any government's performance.
Second, our focus is firmly forward. I am a physician, and while many of the scientists on the table are not physicians, we think of our service to the population in the way a doctor might think of service to a patient. Arguments about the past don't belong at the bedside. Only the forward view helps the patient.
Finally, science is a process. Evidence evolves as the facts on the ground change. We're learning something new every day. There's a great deal more we don't know. In science, uncertainty isn't a failure. Uncertainty is part of the process.
With that, I will summarize a document we prepared last month, entitled “Fighting COVID-19 in Ontario: The Way Forward”. It represents our clearest thinking on what the current evidence says Ontario needs to do right now.
Since its formation in July, the Ontario science advisory table has operated according to three principles. One, we are guided by the most current scientific evidence. Two, we are transparent. All of our science briefs and presentations are publicly posted. Three, we are independent. While we generally advise the provincial government of what we say publicly, no government body or office vets or controls our scientific content or communications in any way.
More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that the following six things will reduce transmission, protect our health care system and allow us to reopen safely as soon as possible.
The first thing is essential workplaces only. Some indoor workplaces have to remain open, but the list of what stays open must be truly essential while strictly enforcing COVID-19 safety measures. For example, essential workers must wear masks at all times while working indoors or when close to others outdoors, and must be supported.
The second is paying essential workers to stay home when they are sick or exposed or need time to get vaccinated. SARS-CoV-2 spreads when people go to work sick or after they've been exposed to the virus. Workers often do this because they have no choice. They must feed their families and pay their rent. An emergency benefit will help limit the spread if it offers appropriate income, is easily accessible and immediately paid, and for the duration of the pandemic is available to these essential workers when they are sick, exposed or need time off to get tested or vaccinated.
The third thing is accelerating the vaccination of essential workers and those who live in hot spots. Vaccines are essential in slowing the pandemic. We need to allocate as many doses as possible to hot-spot neighbourhoods, vulnerable populations, and essential workers; accelerate the distribution; and make it easier for at-risk groups to get vaccinated.
The fourth is limiting mobility. This means restricting movement between and within provinces. COVID-19 is not a single pandemic, because different regions of Ontario and Canada face distinct problems. Moving around the country may create new hot spots, because the variants of concern are so transmissible. People need to stay as much as possible in their local communities.
The fifth thing is focusing on public health guidance that really works. This means not gathering indoors with people from outside one’s household. It means people can spend time with each other outdoors, distancing two metres, wearing masks and keeping hands clean.
The final one is keeping people safely connected. Maintaining social connection and outdoor activity is important to our overall physical and mental health. This means allowing small groups of people from different households to meet outside with masking and two-metre distancing. It means keeping playgrounds open and encouraging safe outdoor activities.
What won't work are policies that harm or neglect racialized, marginalized and other vulnerable populations. They will not be effective against a disease that already affects these groups disproportionately. For these reasons, pandemic policies should be examined through an equity lens.
In conclusion, there's no trade-off between economic, social and health priorities in the midst of a pandemic when it’s at its peak, as it has been recently in Ontario and some of the other provinces. The fastest way to get this disease under control, as quickly as we can, is to do it together.