As the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit’s (SMDHU) medical region prepares to move into the Grey-Lockdown zone as of Monday at 12:01 AM, the Health Unit’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner says it’s happening in hopes it stops the spread of variants of concern locally.

SMDHU is one of the nine public health regions seeing a change in its provincial colour level as of Monday and one of two moving into the Grey zone, with the other being the Thunder Bay District Health Unit.

According to the Health Unit’s Friday COVID-19 update, there are 184 cases of B 1.1.7 in Simcoe Muskoka – including eight in Muskoka. When the province announced last week the region would be moved into lockdown, the rising variant of concern cases was cited as the reason. “I’ve been very concerned by the UK variant here,” Dr. Gardner said Sunday afternoon. He explained that in Simcoe Muskoka there have been more variant cases than any other region in Ontario, with most of the cases being B 1.1.7. Dr. Gardner said most of them stem from the multiple outbreaks at long-term care homes that happened in Barrie, including the one at Roberta Place.

It was also noted that there’s been an “ever-growing” number of cases among individuals who are not linked to any of the outbreaks. Dr. Gardner said “that’s of great concern.”

“I’ve read through hundreds of emails from the community,” he said. Dr. Gardner added that some of those emails were from business owners, municipal and provincial officials. 

The lockdown was caused because the province invoked what’s been dubbed as the emergency brake. “If you see something of concern, you can start a lockdown for an unspecified period,” Dr. Gardner explained. No timeline was given Sunday on when the latest lockdown could end. Dr. Gardner added that this was done based on his recommendation. 

What caused him to make that claim was a jump in cases during the week of February 14th. That week saw a total of 276 cases reported, which was up from the previous week’s 211. He noted that last week saw 233 cases. Dr. Gardner said our region’s reproductive number has risen to 1.4-percent. He explained that’s the number that shows “how rapidly your pandemic is increasing.”

When asked if he’s taken into consideration not having the District of Muskoka involved in the lockdown, he said he’s “of two minds.” He said that he’s concerned about the possibility of residents in Simcoe County travelling to Muskoka. “I’m left really contemplating carefully that perspective,” he said. The Mayors of Bracebridge, Huntsville and Gravenhurst spoke to the newsroom in December and said they were in favour of the District of Muskoka’s COVID-19 data being separated from Simcoe County’s. Bracebridge’s Mayor Graydon Smith added earlier his month that he’s been actively trying to make the change happen. 

Dr. Gardner also acknowledged the struggle many small businesses have been and will continue to go through because of this lockdown. He said that he’s “been told” there could be protests from businesses who refuse to follow the latest restrictions. He added that he’s concerned about people who were once supportive of the protocols put in place now being against the restrictive measures. He said it’s been “extremely hard” to read about struggling businesses. “I’m grateful to be able to read it because it’s important for me to be able to understand it,” he said. 

He finished the briefing by saying that he doesn’t know of a better way to battle the virus and variants of concern than by using the existing framework put in place by the province.