The latest surge in COVID-19 cases and pressures from the medical community for wider and stricter lockdowns have prompted Premier Doug Ford to convene an “emergency” meeting with hospital leaders Friday afternoon.
It comes exactly one week before Christmas and follows four months of increasing spread of the virus as the second wave arrived, from fewer than 100 cases daily in mid-August to 2,432 on Thursday, when the seven-day moving average was almost 9 per cent higher than the same point last week.
Infection levels have continued to climb despite a number of interventions by the province through increased public health restrictions — which several medical groups and doctors and epidemiologists outside the government have repeatedly criticized as not aggressive enough.
“The trend just continues to grow, no matter what we’re doing,” Ford acknowledged at a news conference Thursday.
Toronto, Peel, York and Windsor-Essex are the only health units now in lockdown.
In the meeting with Ontario’s chief medical officer Dr. David Williams and Health Minister Christine Elliott, the premier said he will “discuss next steps to break the concerning trends in cases and hospitals in our province.”
Admissions to hospitals and their intensive care units are already near levels seen at the peak of the first wave last spring, but with months of cold winter weather to come and vaccinations barely started. Non-emergency surgeries, including some cancer operations, are already being cancelled because more and more COVID patients need ICU beds that would otherwise be used for people having surgery.
“Everything is on the table when it comes to protecting the health of all Ontarians,” added Ford, who told reporters “the worst thing we could do is rush out there and make a snap decision in a heartbeat.”
In the meantime, the province will make its usual Friday announcement on which of the 34 regional health units are moving up in a five-tier, colour-coded framework of increasingly restrictive public health measures going from green to yellow, orange, red and grey for lockdown.
The continuum of measures includes things like shorter hours for restaurants and bars at the low end to bans on indoor dining and closures of gyms and non-essential business on the higher lockdown end.
Williams said COVID-19 is spreading wider and faster in several parts of the province outside the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area that has been the hotbed of infections.
The Ontario Hospital Association is pushing Ford, who has said public health restrictions must be balanced with the keeping as many people working as possible, to put almost half the province’s regional health units into lockdowns, from Niagara through much of southern, central and eastern Ontario excluding Ottawa.
OHA president Anthony Dale said a further surge in infections over the Christmas break would “overwhelm” the health care system, but lockdowns in the 15 other health units with 40 or more cases per 100,000 would help to break chains of transmission and buy the province some time to “reset and recalibrate” its pandemic strategy.
Public health experts and politicians alike have been urging Ontarians for weeks not to gather with people other than ones they live with over the holidays because the highly contagious virus spreads easily, including in people not showing any symptoms.
On Friday, York Region pointed to just one example at what can happen at gatherings of people from several households after a birthday party attended by 22 people in a private residence Dec. 6 has resulted in 11 cases of COVID-19 so far. Ages range from three to 54.
The OHA warning followed an order from the province’s own Ontario Health agency that hospitals in lockdown and the red category one step below quickly clear 15 per cent of their beds for COVID-19 patients.