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Ontario hits ‘emergency brake’ as province enters month-long COVID shutdown


Ontario hits ‘emergency brake’ as province enters month-long COVID shutdown

For the second time since Boxing Day, Ontario is going back into severe COVID-19 restrictions for 28 days as highly contagious variants of the virus send hospital intensive care admissions to new highs.

“The entire province will move to emergency brake shutdown,” a senior government source said Wednesday night speaking on condition of anonymity.

Premier Doug Ford will announce that the measures take effect at the end of Friday, at midnight, with a new wrinkle — non-essential retail stores can remain open at 25 per cent capacity.

But despite the improving spring weather, some freedoms will disappear.

“No more patios, no more indoor dining anywhere,” said the source, adding barbershops, hair and nail salons now open in parts of the province not under lockdown will have to close.

Ford telegraphed the changes Wednesday after a month that saw infections rise 110 per cent, including a surge of 45 per cent in the past 10 days.

“I’m very, very concerned to see the cases go up,” he said. “I’m very, very concerned to see the ICU capacity.”

While Ford waited a week to impose a Boxing Day lockdown that was preceded by a frenzy of Christmas shopping and visiting that drove cases higher and led to a mid-January emergency stay-at-home order, health experts and opposition parties said the province cannot afford further delays this time.

“We’re here because Doug Ford decided to walk us straight into a third wave,” charged New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath, joining a chorus of doctors who say the province should have taken action earlier as trends became apparent and variants dominant.

“It’s going to take a while to slow it down,” warned Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of intensive care at Michael Garron Hospital, which went from one COVID-19 patient in intensive care to 10 in the last week as hospitals reported a sudden influx of younger, sicker patients under 60 who are infected with variants.

Ford acknowledged Wednesday that Ontarians will need to pack their patience a while longer as the province struggles once again to get the pandemic back under control without enough vaccine doses to sufficiently blunt the third wave.

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“We only have a little ways to go, it’s still going to be a tough haul, but we’re getting there,” he said a day after the federal government announced accelerated delivery of millions of doses from Pfizer later this spring and first shipments of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by the end of April.

“Let’s be vigilant,” the premier added, cautioning against Easter dinners with other households. “Don’t have big gatherings.”

Ontario reported 2,333 new infections Wednesday and 15 deaths, marking the seventh day in a row with more than 2,000 new cases. About two-thirds of the new infections were in the GTA. There were 421 patients in intensive care across the province, topping the previous record of 420 in mid-January.

Toronto, Peel Region and Hamilton have been in modified lockdown and other regions of the province at lower levels of the province’s COVID-19 framework. A number of areas have seen increased restrictions recently as trends worsened.

Under the modifications, lockdown zones have recently been allowed to reopen outdoor restaurant patios and non-essential stores with reduced customer capacity, and there was the prospect of barbershops, hair and nail salons resuming business April 12, a step that appears unlikely now.

Options were discussed in a cabinet meeting with input from Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams, a table of doctors and scientists advising the province on public health measures, and the latest modelling on the likely trajectory of the pandemic.

With Ford first hinting on Tuesday that changes were coming, “it’s ridiculous the government is stringing us along again,” Horwath told reporters.

The third wave is turning out worse than it had to because the Ford government failed to heed advice two months ago from its volunteer table of science advisers that variants would become dominant in March and lead to cases doubling more quickly and more pressure on hospitals, said Green Leader Mike Schreiner.

Elliott said she’s aware that a third wave would send more Ontarians to hospitals, which is why Sunnybrook is among several to have new field units on campus.

“While the situation is concerning we will make sure we have capacity,” she said.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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