Earlier this week, Randy Hillier, the independent MPP for Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston, posted a picture of himself presiding over a Christmas celebration with 14 other people, not socially distanced and not wearing masks.
It looks like a typical Christmas gathering in any year but this one.
"The threat or risk from COVID is exaggerated and does not warrant or justify the harm our governments have adopted," wrote Hillier in his Christmas post.
The photograph Hillier posted has been criticized for flouting public health rules, and the region's top public health official this week reiterated warnings about social gatherings.
"Social gatherings are where there is a high risk that people will have close contact with others. Across the province, the number of people with COVID has been increasing which means there is a higher probability that someone at a social gathering could have COVID-19 and spread it to others," said Leeds, Grenville and Lanark medical officer of health Dr. Paula Stewart.
She added individuals with COVID-19 are infectious for two days before symptom onset, and sometimes never actually develop symptoms. People come to a social gathering with the last 14 days of potential exposure to someone with COVID, said Stewart.
"Our focus locally has been to advise our citizens to continue to follow the direction of public health and to ignore the various sources of dangerous and misleading information," added Smiths Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow.
Smiths Falls council passed a resolution to that effect. A similar motion was supported unanimously by Lanark County council, said Pankow.
Along with the photograph, Hillier questioned the severity of the virus, and doubled down during an interview.
"We're apparently in one of the greatest pandemics of our age, but fewer people overall have died this year than last year in Canada," said Hillier in an interview.
It's unclear where Hillier is getting his information. According to Statistic Canada, between January 2020 and October 2020, there were 241,257 deaths in Canada, compared to 226,994 during the same period in 2019 and 228,058 deaths in 2018.
Data from Statista, a private German statistics aggregating company, corroborates the finding that there were more deaths in Canada in 2020 than in previous years. Their data shows 300,310 deaths in 2020 compared to 287,460 in 2019.
Certainly not new to controversy, Hillier has been vocal in his criticism of the government response to COVID-19.
"It is reasonable to ask questions and to suggest alternatives to the policies being proposed by the prime minister and various premiers. (Ottawa Mayor) Jim Watson is doing so, with the support of his health officer, Dr. Etches," said Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston MP Scott Reid.
"As far back as April, when the officials were telling us that mask-wearing was not helpful in protecting us from the COVID virus, I publicly questioned this analysis on Twitter," added Reid, who was one of the first MPs to don a mask.
Since then, the health units and government guidelines have pivoted, and mask wearing has become mandatory. The pivot was based on scientific data about how the virus spreads.
"There is always room to question public policy, that’s what a democracy is all about, but we also need to rely on health experts and there is ample evidence globally that the measures being put in place are effective and are keeping us safe," said Pankow.
Hillier also questioned how public health guidelines are being developed.
"We're basing all of our policies on the PCR tests we know to be only 50 per cent accurate. If I knew my voltage meter was 50 per cent wrong, I would not rely on it to test for voltage," said Hillier.
While PCR tests are not infallible, they are, according to multiple experts, considerably more reliable than Hillier asserts.
There are three types of tests being used in Canada. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test detects the virus itself. This is the one that's administered at assessment centres in our region and involves a long swab inserted into the nasal passage.
"The PCR test that is done in an accredited laboratory has a sensitivity of 95 per cent, which means it picks up 95 per cent of the people who have COVID-19," said Stewart.
It is the less common rapid antigen test, which does not require specialized equipment and can be administered by anyone, that is less accurate, according to Dr. Vivek Goel, a professor at the Institute of Health Policy, University of Toronto.
According to Stewart, physicians make a clinical assessment, and if there is a high index of suspicion that the person has COVID-19 based on symptoms, then the test is repeated. So people who are missed the first time are very likely picked up with the second test. This is usual clinical practice, added Stewart.
"I am no expert, but I can look at charts and tables and make a determination on what they mean," said Hillier. "Suicides have increased and that's in large part due to the isolation and confinement but also stress of not having an income."
There are no available statistics on the number of suicide deaths in Canada for 2020 although there have been numerous projections suggesting the suicide rates will be higher, because historically suicide rates go up during any economic downturn.
Hillier also cites an increase in deaths resulting from opioid overdoses. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, there were, in fact, 1,628 opioid deaths in Canada between April and June 2020, compared to 1,059 for the same period in 2019. However, opioid deaths have been more than doubling every year since 2016, starting at 2,861 and ballooning to a cumulative total of 12,800 by 2019.
Hillier says he’s only trying to highlight the problems with the government's response to the pandemic.
"I have never experienced such a level of despair and anxiety in my riding. It hurts to see it and it hurts to see us continue to exacerbate the problems. It's wrong. What we're doing is wrong," said Hillier, adding that lockdowns and isolation cause severe and far greater damage than COVID-19.
Hillier says he's referring to the lockdown in his region, where there have been relatively few infections, hospitalizations and deaths, compared to the Toronto-Peel region.
But Stewart points to the severity of the disease.
What we do know, said Stewart, is that COVID-19 attaches to the cells in the lungs and other body parts (heart, liver) and affects how they function, causing more serious health problems, unlike the common cold which affects the nose and throat with local symptoms.
There's no doubt that isolation is a health risk, and that, said Stewart, is where society comes in.
"We as a community can respond to the current provincial shutdown by reaching out to help our neighbours, keep in contact with family and friends, and support our local businesses," she said.
Mayor Pankow goes a step further, acknowledging that lockdowns and restrictions have had negative consequences for far too many businesses and have affected the financial and mental health of many people, but he adds that the impact on business and the population would be far worse without the public health measures that have been put in place.
"It is no coincidence that jurisdictions that have had stricter restrictions have experienced far fewer infections, hospitalizations and deaths than areas that have resisted common sense measures like social distancing and wearing a face covering," said Pankow.
While Hillier remains adamant that the solutions being put forward by current governments are draconian, he hasn't as yet offered any alternatives.
"Once we understand the extent of the problem the better solutions are obvious," said Hillier.
Story by Heddy Sorour, Brockville Recorder and Times for the Local Journalism Initiative