Premier Doug Ford is toughening the benchmarks for imposing COVID-19 restrictions in the wake of a Star story revealing he rejected advice from the province’s own public agency to make them more stringent.
Amid a rapid escalation in cases to several record highs this week, and grim computer modelling that predicted infections could quadruple by mid-December without stronger measures, the premier said Friday it was time to make a move.
“If we don’t change course in a big way, Ontario is on track for 6,500 more cases per day,” Ford told a news conference at Queen’s Park.
“We’re staring down the barrel of another lockdown.”
The modelling numbers mean intensive care units could be “overwhelmed in six weeks,” he added. “The impact on our hospitals would be devastating.”
Ford asked chief medical officer Dr. David Williams to take a “hard look” at any additional restrictions and to make any recommendations next week. Some critics and medical experts are calling for a lockdown to break chains of transmission, while keeping schools open.
“We didn’t hear the measures today that we need,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. “We needed to see more urgency from Mr. Ford.”
If Williams and the province’s health measures table of advisers recommend it, “I will lock down quicker than you can blink your eyes because my number one priority is to protect the lives, protect the safety of every single person in Ontario,” Ford pledged.
The premier hinted at the change in benchmarks Thursday as he came under fire for ignoring the recommendation of Public Health Ontario (PHO) in creating a new colour-coded, five-stage framework for taking action in the pandemic.
PHO chief health protection officer Dr. Shelley Deeks had urged the government to set the threshold for action in the fourth stage — known as red or “control” and one short of a lockdown — four times lower than the government announced last week.
The agency recommended the triggers to move a health unit into the red zone be a weekly infection rate of 25 cases per 100,000 population and a lab test positivity rate of 2.5 per cent. But based on a proposal from Williams, Ford’s cabinet settled on 100 cases and 10 per cent.
The red zone infection rate threshold was changed Friday to 40 cases per 100,000 population — which is still higher than recommended by Deeks — and a positivity rate threshold of 2.5 per cent. In lower categories of green, yellow and orange, thresholds have been adjusted accordingly.
“We are in support of the new thresholds announced by the province,” Deeks said in a brief statement to the Star.
Ford should have met the standard the public health agency first recommended, said Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, calling the changes “half-measures.”
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch of University Health Network applauded the tougher benchmarks, calling them a “good move,” but noted “it took a lot of pushing” to get them changed.
Warnings that the initial levels were too lax and could let COVID-19 get out of control quickly came from a number of doctors, epidemiologists, the Ontario Hospital Association and the Ontario Medical Association. The red zone designation allows indoor dining, gyms, casinos and bingo halls to be open, for example, which has also caused controversy.
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The changes to the thresholds in the framework mean Toronto, York, Halton and Hamilton will join Peel in the red category with restrictions such as stopping the serving of alcohol in bars and restaurants at 9 p.m., closing time at 10 p.m. and limits of four people per table. That begins in Toronto on Saturday, and on Monday in the others.
Toronto and Peel have already set some additional restrictions, with Toronto banning indoor dining at restaurants and bars for another four weeks, along with indoor fitness classes. Peel has banned wedding receptions, the source of many outbreaks, until Jan. 7.
Ford urged red-zone residents to stay home except for “essential” trips, such as going to their jobs if they can’t work remotely, going to school or medical appointments and exercising.
“Families should not … visit any other households or allow visitors into their homes, and please avoid social gatherings,” he added.
New COVID-19 cases reported Friday in Ontario fell short of the previous day’s record of 1,575 but the seven-day moving average hit another high and hospitalizations increased more than usual.
The Ministry of Health said 1,396 more Ontarians have become infected with the highly contagious virus and the moving average rose by 56 to 1,355 with 19 more deaths.
That moving average — which is closely watched by public health officials because it smooths out daily fluctuations — is up 36 per cent from last Friday in a week that saw daily records repeatedly shattered.
Ontario’s cases continue to be concentrated in the GTA but more infections are being reported in other parts of the provinces.
Toronto and Peel each had 440 new cases, York had 155, Halton had 55 and Durham had 41. There were 91 in Ottawa.
Ontario hospitals admitted 21 more people for COVID-19, raising the total under care to 451. There were 106 seriously ill in intensive care, an increase of 10, with 67 on ventilators, an increase of five.
“Many of Ontario’s large community hospitals and health science centres are full,” said Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association. “Some are certain to experience overwhelming conditions unless new public health measures are put in place by the government of Ontario immediately.”
Cases numbers have also been rising in nursing homes at a rate of more than 400 residents a week, including 27 in the last day, along with 14 more staff, and 10 resident deaths. There are now 93 nursing homes experiencing outbreaks.
There have been 200 deaths in long-term care since Sept. 14 with more than 700 nursing-home residents and 478 staff now fighting active cases of the virus, said geriatrician Dr. Nathan Stall of Mount Sinai Hospital.
“We’re probably going to expect a lot more tragedy in the coming weeks and months,” he told a news conference Friday.
Ontario has had at least 3,312 COVID-19 deaths, with 2,109 of them in nursing homes.
With files from Jennifer Yang and Kate Allen
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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