OTTAWA -- Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health is recommending a new approach for the capital to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic - learning to coexist with the virus. 

“I have suggested to the province we find a more balanced approach for the way forward," Dr. Vera Etches said Monday. 

"The approach I’m recommending is that we learn to coexist with COVID with care."

Dr. Etches made those comments at the board of health meeting Monday evening.

Following the board of health meeting, Dr. Etches posted the following message on Twitter: “I have written to the Mayor describing the need for a new approach to the pandemic response, for the sake of the population’s health. We need to be learning to live with COVID, to coexist with COVID, with caution.”   

Dr. Etches says as we near the end of the 28-day modified restrictions in Ottawa, it is time to ‘balance harms’ going forward.

“We definitely see harms from the transmission of COVID and we’re worried about hospitalizations and deaths and people not being well,” Dr. Etches said.

“We’re also seeing really signification harms from the closures and the impact on people’s businesses and employment and people’s mental health.”

Dr. Etches says we’re looking at a situation where COVID-19 is going to continue to cause a risk of resurgence in Ottawa for a while.

“We need to find new ways to live with the Virus,” she said.

Dr. Etches says Ottawa has ‘seen what can be done’ after the community decreased the level on COVID-19 in the capital more than once.

“We can do this through our own actions, we can decrease COVID in the community, and it is important to have more economic activity return.” 

Dr. Etches says using ‘harm reduction’ and ensuring there are added safety measures in a bar or restaurant is, in her view, more safe than people gathering at private settings, where there may be no safety measures in place. As a result, Dr. Etches explained it would be less harmful to have people in controlled environments going forward.

“I’ve looked at the levels of unemployment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic response, I’ve looked at indicators of the mental health of our community and the challenges arising from a backlog in surgical and medical procedures. I’m concluding more needs to be done to enable people to return to more of their usual supports and services in their lives," Dr. Etches said.

"Similar to how schools are able to be open with precautions in place, businesses should be able to open with precautions in place. People should be able to learn to live with COVID with care."

Letter to the mayor

On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Watson released a copy of the letter Dr. Etches sent him, while commenting on news that gyms and indoor dining would reopen in Ottawa on Saturday.

In the letter, Dr. Etches describes her reasons for reopening businesses ahead of the winter months.

"The rationale to adjust measures to enable businesses to open or ramp up their operations includes some signs that the majority of people in Ottawa are and will do their part to limit COVID-19 transmission as asked when the situation is serious; negative impacts on the health of the population from the unemployment and closure of businesses resulting from the pandemic; and peoples’ need to have supports that will help them live with COVID-19 through the winter and for the foreseeable future at a time when reported mental health challenges are high and there is no end in sight for the pandemic," Dr. Etches wrote.

Another reason, she said, is that businesses are more tightly controlled than private gatherings or other places where regulations don't exist or are harder to enforce.

"There are examples and reports of larger gatherings in private settings where no COVID-19 control measures were in place," Dr. Etches wrote. "Thus, another rationale for opening businesses is as a harm reduction approach, to minimize private or underground gatherings of higher risk where there is not oversight and, too often, no COVID-19 mitigation controls in place to minimize transmission."

Dr. Etches outlined several measures she would like the province to implement after restrictions change on Nov. 7, including giving businesses at least two days' notice before moving the region to a different restriction level, discontinuing talk about "social circles" or "bubbles" and instead focusing on keeping close contacts limited to members of one's household or one or two close supports if one lives alone, and to provide official direction on the construction and use of cloth masks. 

"Currently the public is not adequately protected from mask that are poorly constructed, especially those with poor filterability, breathability, and fit," Dr. Etches said.

One Million Reasons

On Monday, OPH officially unveiled its new "One Million Reasons" campaign. 

"We all have our reasons to stop the spread," Etches said. "We are one million people strong and the actions of individuals do make a difference."

Radio ads started on Monday and a video version launched on Twitter Tuesday morning.

"We are calling on all of us to work together to continue that care and to do our part or the reasons that make sense for us. We each have our reasons to limit COVID transmission," Etches said.

Adapting 'something we have to do': Dr. Tam

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters on Tuesday that she agrees with Dr. Etches' comments.

"We've stressed that each of the local public health officers may need to adjust to what's going on in the environment. So, I think living with COVID-19 is something that we have to do because it's not going to immediately disappear and the population doesn't have much immunity," Dr. Tam said. "Dr. Etches obviously knows her municipality better than any of us would and she's advising accordingly. So, I think it's a matter of adaptation and seeing if it would work."

Dr. Tam stressed that while adapting to life with COVID-19 in our communities is important, how to do it must be carefully thought out.

"If cases do occur and accelerate in a community, then you have to get at it early because if you let it, the virus and the numbers accelerate and keep accelerating," she said. "You will then end up with more widespread closures. So, I think as cities or hotspots cool down, if you like, the restart needs to be carefully thought of."