Premier Doug Ford is vowing to have 40 per cent of adults vaccinated against COVID-19 — including essential workers over age 18 in Toronto and Peel Region hot spots — during Ontario’s 28-day stay-at-home order that begins Thursday.
Declaring a third state of emergency in a year, Ford said special education workers across the province and “all education workers in high-risk neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel” would also begin getting shots during next week’s spring break with dangerous variants of the virus spreading by the day.
The stay-at-home order, which could be extended, goes to May 6. The premier’s office said Ford’s 40 per cent vaccination target should get enough first doses to hot zones and quell transmission levels there.
“We need to get the vaccines where they will have the greatest impact as quickly as possible,” a sombre Ford said Wednesday, bowing to pressure from health experts and educators for targeted shots in trouble spots where outbreaks have resulted in younger adults being hospitalized at higher rates.
Vaccines will be sent to more hot zones in other municipalities as supplies allow.
“I am pleased with the pivot,” said Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital, formerly Toronto East General. He warned adults under 50 in ICUs are now dying at twice the speed of the first and second waves with one fatality every 2.8 days.
For Toronto and Peel hot spots, Ford said mobile teams and pop-up clinics are being organized to give jabs to anyone over 18 living in highly impacted neighbourhoods.
The trigger for the second stay-at-home order since January was a sudden increase in admissions of critically ill Ontarians to hospital intensive care units above levels that had been predicted in the “worst-case” modelling scenarios, threatening the health-care system, Ford added.
“How we handle the next four weeks, what we do until we start achieving mass immunization, will be the difference between life and death for thousands of people,” he said, brushing aside criticisms that he should have acted sooner on the stay-at-home order given repeated warnings from his science advisers.
“Ford walked us right into this lockdown with eyes wide open,” New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters.
“Experts made it clear every step of the way — he was reopening too quickly, taking away public health protections too soon, and implementing half-measures that would not stop the spread.”
With ICU admissions increasing, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is trying to boost hospital capacity. It has not yet prepared a cabinet order indemnifying intensive care physicians from liability in making difficult triage decisions as to which patients will get the resources needed to have the best chance to survive, she said.
“We haven’t finalized any of that.”
The province’s science advisers have cautioned the scenario seen last year in New York City and northern Italy, where ICUs were overwhelmed, would become reality in Ontario once patient levels of about 800 are reached in critical care.
The province is at 504 — a record in the pandemic — after a one-third rise in the last week and more admissions expected with the province averaging almost 3,000 new infections a day.
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
Elliott said many hospitals are at capacity, meaning there is no way for Ontario to vaccinate its way out of the situation and a four-week stay-at-home order is crucial to containing the virus and its highly contagious variants.
“The variants have won this round of the race,” Peel medical officer Dr. Lawrence Loh told a news conference in Brampton. “Close down, vaccinate, and get out of this.”
There were 3,215 new infections reported Wednesday — including 1,095 in Toronto and 596 in Peel — with 17 more deaths bringing the pandemic total to 7,475 fatalities.
The government limited retailers open for in-person shopping mainly to supermarkets, pharmacies, LCBO outlets, and takeout restaurants. Non-essential retailers go back to online sales and curbside pickup. Malls can designate one indoor location for customer pickup of items by appointment.
In a change from a similar order issued to quell the second wave in January, big box stores like Walmart and Costco will be limited to selling essential food, pharmacy, personal and pet care items.
Employees who can are asked to work from home and trips outside the home should be for essential reasons only, such as food shopping, medical appointments and exercise. Close contact with anyone from another household is discouraged.
The changes came six days after the premier announced an Ontario-wide “lockdown” widely panned as inadequate since it just closed restaurant patios, indoor dining and personal services such as hair salons and barber shops that were open in areas outside Toronto and Peel, and not already in lockdown.
Toronto’s public and Catholic schools closed to in-person learning Wednesday, following in the footsteps of Peel Region schools the day before.
Ford rejected pressure from health experts and opposition parties to introduce a sick pay policy so that people with COVID-19 symptoms and without benefits can stay home if ill. Ford said a federal program is available.
The stay-at-home order is a dramatic turnaround from recent weeks, in which Ford allowed non-essential retailers in lockdown zones to open to 25 per cent customer capacity, raised indoor dining capacity limits in bars and restaurants outside lockdown areas and permitted sidewalk patios in Toronto and Peel.
There was also the promise that barber shops, hair and nail salons could open April 12 in Toronto, Peel and other regions elevated to lockdowns, but as infection levels grew across the province those hopes were dashed.
Cases of COVID-19 are up more than 70 per cent in the last two weeks.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe