Ontario’s government is weighing a series of tougher COVID-19 measures – including extending its stay-at-home order – as the province faces warnings it could soon be struggling with up to 18,000 new infections a day.
The government, which was mulling new restrictions to contain the virus at a cabinet meeting late Thursday, is set to unveil staggering new predictions from its COVID-19 science advisory table.
This latest modelling, a source familiar with the document told The Globe and Mail, suggests that case counts could rise as high as 18,000 new daily infections – around four times the already record current rate.
The numbers also suggest that by the end of May, the province could have as many 1,800 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, compared with the record 644 it has now – well beyond the level at which hospital officials have warned would force doctors to ration life-saving care.
The projections, the source said, assume even tougher restrictions are put in place and that schools are kept closed. The Globe is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to discuss the numbers publicly.
The province registered a record 4,736 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, with 29 deaths.
Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet met for hours on Thursday to discuss new restrictions, in addition to the provincewide stay-at-home order already in place, to beat back the pandemic’s rapidly escalating third wave. As of Thursday evening, no decisions had been finalized.
But sources familiar with the decision-making process said the province was considering closing down manufacturing plants deemed non-essential. A curfew was also under discussion. The Premier has previously resisted the idea, which is in effect in Quebec. But three sources familiar with the Ontario government’s decision-making said it was at least among the measures being explored. The Globe is not identifying the sources, who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Other ideas, the sources said, include extending the current stay-at-home order for two weeks beyond its May 5 expiry date and beefing up police enforcement of pandemic orders. Cabinet also discussed imposing new limits on the construction industry and further restricting non-essential retail, which is currently limited to curbside pickup.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said the province was considering all options for new pandemic restrictions but declined to discuss details, citing cabinet confidentiality. Asked whether she felt a curfew was necessary, she noted the recent riots in Montreal over the imposition of a curfew there and said such a measure would be difficult to enforce.
“I think the Montreal riots speak to the challenge of both enforcing, and people’s willingness to do, a curfew. But again, all options are on the table,” Ms. Jones said.
She also suggested higher fines for pandemic rulebreakers may be needed and said people failing to wear masks was costing lives.
Hospitals have warned for months that rapid increases in ICU numbers could force them to start triaging patients, denying critical care to those with the lowest chance of survival. Over all, there were 1,875 patients of all kinds in the province’s ICUs on Thursday, with more than a third suffering from COVID-19. Patients in packed COVID-19 hot-spot hospitals were regularly being helicoptered to beds sometimes hundreds of kilometres away.
“We are staring into the abyss,” said Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association.
Ontario’s Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health, Barbara Yaffe, issued a stern warning, calling the province’s situation “dire.” She said public-health officials and the province’s external science advisory table had been devising new public-health measures as options for the government to consider. She would not elaborate.
“I think the bottom line is, things will not get better. If we don’t change what we’re doing, things will in fact get worse,” Dr. Yaffe said, adding that Ontarians need to act the way they did in the early days of the pandemic last year, when streets were virtually empty. “I know that people are tired, people are fed up. But we want to get this thing controlled, and we don’t want to ruin the summer.”
Attention has focused on the province’s big cities. But even smaller communities were seeing the effects of the virus’s new variants. In the mostly rural Grey-Bruce health district, about 190 kilometres northwest of Toronto, public-health officials were forced to cancel an immunization clinic to redirect staff to contact tracing after a sudden surge of more than 70 cases in just 36 hours – in an area with usually just a handful of cases a day.
Local Medical Officer of Health Ian Arra pleaded with all residents to act as if they were carriers of the virus, as his staff worked to trace hundreds of close contacts. He blamed the surge on two large social events, including a teenage bush party. But he said he believed the restrictions the province brought in earlier this month will start to blunt his increase in cases soon.
“It’s going to be instrumental in controlling the wave. We just need to hold the fort for a few more days until these numbers start coming down,” Dr. Arra said.
Meanwhile, further delays are hampering Ontario’s vaccine rollout, with some hospital clinics cancelling appointments or shutting down temporarily because of lack of supply. The Premier’s office said Thursday that 448,400 Moderna doses originally expected to be delivered by the federal government next week have been delayed to the week of May 3. The province is also struggling to get AstraZeneca out the door as quickly as other vaccines, with about 500,000 doses remaining that have been sent to pharmacies and family doctors.
With a report from Marieke Walsh
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