OTTAWA -- Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health insists the future of physical distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic is in “all of our hands.”

But Dr. Vera Etches says when the measures are eventually relaxed by public health authorities, it will happen “slowly.”

Ottawa’s parks are closed, except to walk or run through with the family or the dog, and all playground equipment is off limits. Dr. Etches has urged people to avoid family gatherings for Easter, Passover and Ramadan.

Speaking on CTV News at Six, Dr. Etches was asked if the physical distancing measures could be in place as long as they have been in Wuhan, China, which is easing the measures after 11 weeks.

“It really is in all our hands, all our actions. Keeping two metres apart really makes a difference and the more that we keep up with this physical distancing the sooner we’ll be able to say we’re there, we’ve built the capacity we need in our health care system and we can start to ease up on the physical distancing,” said Dr. Etches.

“We want to make sure our hospitals are ready. When we know that, that will important to decide on easing up.”

The Medical Officer of Health says health officials also need to build up the testing capacity to make sure everyone that needs to be tested can be tested for COVID-19.

“What I’m looking for is I’m watching - not the laboratory tests only, the confirmed cases because that’s not the whole picture - I’m looking at the hospitalizations,” said Dr. Etches.

“We still see the number of people hospitalized, unfortunately number of people in the intensive care unit growing, and that is a trend that we would like to see slow down. When we see the hospitalizations slow down, that will be very encouraging.”

Dr. Etches says if the rate of hospitalization starts to drop, officials can begin to have conversations about easing the physical distancing measures.

But when the measures are eased, life won't return to 100 per cent normal immediately.

“We probably need to do this slowly. So it won’t be all of a sudden back to all of your normal activities, but let’s think about carefully what’s most important to start up first.”

An Ottawa Public Health survey conducted last week found 85 per cent of residents are practicing physical distancing by staying two metres away from others to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Tighter restrictions?

During Wednesday’s Council meeting, Councillor Theresa Kavanagh asked whether the City of Ottawa and Ontario could tighten the physical distancing measures, noting Paris has banned people from jogging during the day.

“It’s important for the public to understand it’s really in all of our hands,” said Dr. Etches.

“If we do a really good job with physical distancing now with the ability to go out for some exercise that can be sufficient for us to manage.”

Dr. Etches says if Ottawa residents don’t respect the rules, more restrictions could be implemented to enforce physical distancing and keep the number of infections manageable.  

Premier Doug Ford had suggested Ontario could implement further physical distancing requirements if the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise.

“I am interested in a sustainable approach. It’s why I continue to emphasise that people should go outside in a safe way. So making sure you’re not gathering with others, you’re not visiting in parks and you’re making sure that you stay two metres from others,” said Dr. Etches.

“Getting outside is critical for our mental health and our physical health, but we need to do it safely.”