If you’re confused about Ontario’s mixed messaging on COVID-19, join the club.

Some public health and policy experts agree it’s tough to make heads or tails of rules that seem, on one hand, to urge caution, while signalling with the other hand that we’re good to throw it to the wind and spend Christmas in the close physical presence of our loved ones.

Amid escalating cases of COVID, the Ford government announced Monday that a province-wide lockdown will begin at 12:01 a.m. on Boxing Day. We try to answer some of your questions about the new lockdown, its timing and possible impact.

If it’s that important, why are we waiting until the day after Christmas to start this lockdown?

Robert Schwartz, professor of public health policy at Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, asks that same question. The Ontario government suggested Monday the delay was to allow businesses to sell off their inventory before being plunged, once again, into a difficult economic situation. But, Schwartz said that’s confusing. Supermarkets that sell food and other perishable items will remain open during the lockdown. So will big box stores. Restaurants will continue takeout service as per the ‘new normal’ and other businesses, Schwartz said, should be able to sell their inventory later. “It does ring as not making complete sense,” he said, of the reasoning for the delay in starting the lockdown. “The government is not saying directly go congregate,” Schwartz said, “but that is how people may interpret the messages in between the lines.”

Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said science is only one of the many factors politicians rely on to create health policies, such as lockdowns, and we need to remember that. We have relatively strong restrictions in place already, he said. Schools are closed for the holidays and students will be learning online for at least a week or longer after the break. Still, Juni said, we shouldn’t need to depend on what politicians tell us in order to do the right thing. Right now, he said, that means staying in our own, small, socially distant bubbles.

If two families in Toronto get together and form a group of 10 people, he said, the risk that at least one of them is infectious with SARS COV-2 is 7 per cent. Make that a get-together of 15 people and that risk swells to 10 per cent. “You sit at a big table together and eat and the virus can easily spread to a few of these people,” he said. “We need to take it really seriously.”

Lockdowns don’t seem to work all that well because the cases keep rising. So, why do we still need lockdowns?

The lockdowns are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, according to Juni. Just because cases are rising, he said, doesn’t mean the lockdowns aren’t working. The cases, he said, are rising at a slower rate than they would have if there hadn’t been a lockdown at all. In fact, he said, if the current lockdown hadn’t happened, a lot more people would have been infected with the virus. “I can guarantee that,” he said.

Another important point, he said, is that all of the hygiene and social distancing measures are now becoming even more important because of the threat of a new variant of the virus, reported in the United Kingdom, that could be even more infectious. “Being careful, wearing masks, this is even more important now,” he said. “If we are disciplined enough we will bring the number of cases down. This is the only solution we have until we get the vaccine.”

How will people perceive Monday’s announcement?

“Obviously there’s going to be a wide variety of audience responses,” said Margaret MacNeill, associate professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and an expert in health communication. “I think it is a message that is almost giving permission for people to go out and do the holiday things they might have been planning on doing without a full lockdown. So I think it is problematic.”

MacNeill said Monday’s announcement was a mixed message because on one hand Ford spoke about the dire public health issue, but on the other, the concerns of businesses. “He said he was taking all his advice from public health officials. But why wait until the 26th? The response was, ‘Well, businesses need time to prepare.’”

In a public health emergency, communication needs to be crystal clear, MacNeill said, and health should be the “number-one concern.”

So, schools will be shut down for a week (or more) and kids learning online. Why didn’t they tell us earlier?

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Because, they just didn’t.

At least, students and staff got a memo urging them to bring home their things before the Christmas break — just in case, according to Leslie Wolfe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation Toronto. Wolfe said she has had concerns about asymptomatic spread of the virus for a while and is pleased the premier has added that extra week out of “an abundance of caution.”

However, she said, the next step for the government is to put in place asymptomatic testing across the system “so we can really understand what’s happening in schools.”

Michele Henry is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star, writing health and education stories. Follow her on Twitter: @michelehenry

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