Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he is open to a regional approach to reopening the province’s economy, reversing his stand after warnings from local health officials that COVID-19 is continuing to batter the Greater Toronto Area harder than other places.
Mr. Ford made the comments as he spoke about his province’s new ramped-up testing strategy, released on Friday. The plan includes mobile testing teams and “targeted campaigns” to look for the disease in community hot spots, as well as among more hospital workers, first responders and their families, shelter residents, jail guards and inmates, and even auto workers, retail salespeople and employees in a long list of other sectors.
The Premier said the increased testing will allow the province to get a better handle on where COVID-19 is spreading and on containing it, making it possible to consider reopening some regions before others.
“I am now comfortable with asking our officials to look at a regional approach for staged reopening,” Mr. Ford said. “This is one option that we’re putting on the table. And we’re only able to do this now, because we are getting our testing to where we need it.”
A proposal earlier this week from all 34 local medical officers of health across the province pleaded for a regional approach, like that applied in Quebec and Alberta, which have maintained more restrictions for harder-hit areas.
The proposal, submitted to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams and obtained by The Globe and Mail and other media outlets, also lays out a long list of specific thresholds on infection rates and hospital capacity that should be met before a region lifts more restrictions.
Mr. Ford has previously been cool to the idea of allowing parts of the province to reopen more slowly than others. On Tuesday, while noting that local medical officers of health have the legal authority to keep restrictions in place, he pointed to the regular flood of cottagers from the GTA up north as an issue with any regional approach.
Ontario’s new broader testing strategy was unveiled by senior provincial health officials at a briefing earlier on Friday. Already, provincial officials said, police, paramedics, firefighters and their families in hardest-hit Toronto are being tested, along with the populations of selected correctional facilities and staff at the province’s liquor retailer.
But neither the Premier nor his top health officials would say precisely how many more tests Ontario hopes to perform under the strategy.
Until recently, Ontario has struggled to meet its own testing targets. The problem has been blamed at various times on shortages of the required swabs and reagents, a lack of lab capacity and too few couriers to handle samples on weekends.
However, on Friday the province said it conducted 18,525 tests the previous day, above its goal of 16,000 but below its stated capacity of more than 20,000. As of Thursday, the province had 344 new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 27,210, with 41 new deaths taking the death toll to 2,230. Of the new cases, 175 were in Toronto.
Confusion has lingered over who is eligible for at test. This week, the government broadened its criteria to include anyone with a symptom linked to COVID-19 and anyone who believes they may have come in contact with an infected person or whose occupation involves working with the public, such as grocery store employees.
Official Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the new testing strategy was long overdue and lacked specific commitments and timelines.
“Testing in Ontario has been woefully inadequate from the beginning of this pandemic," she said in a statement. “It should never have taken this long to get a coherent community testing strategy on the table.”
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