Premier Doug Ford warned that Ontario's supply of personal protective equipment is "down to a week," and said it's critical for the United States to exempt Canada from its decision to stop the export of medical masks north of the border.
"We know that the U.S. isn’t allowing supplies across the border and as the global demand escalates, getting supplies from other countries is getting increasingly difficult," Ford said during a press conference on Monday afternoon. "We’re doing everything in our power, we’re exhausting every avenue available to us, turning over every stone, but the hard truth is our supplies in Ontario are getting very low."
Before the press conference, a government official said 500,000 masks were "held up by U.S. officials yesterday," but that the province had "since received confirmation that they are being released." The government source said the masks were "stopped by officials at a facility in the U.S.," not at the border. Ford later said Ontario had a couple of orders for a total of about four million N95 masks.
"We just need the federal government down in the U.S. to exempt us and I think we’re getting extremely extremely close," said Ford, adding that he spoke with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer on Sunday and was scheduled to speak with him again on Monday afternoon.
"He gave me a glimmer of hope," said Ford. "He agrees, we’ve got to help our neighbours."
Ford said he's also been speaking regularly with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and praised her for "working around the clock to resolve the issue we’re facing with the U.S. government."
The premier has openly criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's move to try to restrict medical masks from being exported out of the country. 3M, an American multi-national company that makes N95 masks, announced on Friday that the U.S. administration had asked the company to "cease exporting" the masks it manufactures in the U.S. to other countries including Canada.
"It threw a real wrench into things when the U.S. closed down their borders on this, but we're reaching out to everyone in the world right now...to make sure that we have enough masks," Ford said. "I don't want to be crying wolf...unless it's real and I'm being honest, it's serious."
The premier said if Ontario receives the additional 500,000 masks, it could "buy us another week," but that "everyone seems to be requiring these N95 masks right now." The premier of Newfoundland, for example, sent a request to Ontario for some masks, Ford said, adding that he has asked Quebec if they have extras.
"I still have a little bit of hope here that we're going to get these in, I just don't give up," Ford said, but he added that he'll wait to see them first before claiming a victory.
"I go back to trust, but verify," he said. "Until I see physically those 500,000 landed here in Ontario, then I can report in and say we have it."
When it comes to personal protective equipment, Ford said they identify the province's supply through different codes and that "right now they're all red, meaning we need all of them." This includes surgical masks, N95 masks, surgical gowns and test kits.
The premier said he is considering the option of sanitizing and reusing masks as Quebec is doing, but that "we aren't at that point right now."
On Saturday, Ford voiced frustration over the wait for federal regulatory approvals of supplies, like masks, that he wants to see produced in Ontario. He said Monday that Health Canada had given approval for a company — Woodbridge Auto — to make N96 masks, and again praised Freeland.
"I don’t know if it’s changed so much, but I did mention about rattling some cages and I guess Chrystia went up there and did that," he said. "(The) deputy prime minister is a firecracker, she’s out there going full-steam on this and sometimes you have to push the system a little harder."
Ford defended early statements from his government about there being enough PPE supply, countering the assertion that officials were downplaying the need for this equipment. He said Health Minister Christine Elliott "answered honestly that at the time we had enough masks."
"You have to understand, this is changing hour-by-hour, day-by-day," he said. "The more people we get tested, the more masks we’re using."
Telehealth Ontario delays
Elliott was asked about people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and having to wait two or three days before receiving a call back from a Telehealth Ontario nurse. The health minister said this was "not acceptable."
"We really want to get that down to within 24 hours, so that’s something that we’re continuing to work on," Elliott said, encouraging people to call their family doctors for a "more timely way to deal with it."
Mandatory stay-at-home order
Premier Ford spoke of the nice weekend weather and said while many were taking the advice of health officials to practice physical distancing, "others continue to ignore it."
"There are extremely serious consequences if we don’t stay home, all we have to do is look at New York, Italy or Spain," said Ford.
"Here in Ontario we have 1,600 lives at stake this month alone," the premier said, referring to projections from provincial officials of the number of deaths Ontario could see by the end of the month with current measures in places. "This is a matter of life or death."
Asked why he wasn't issuing a mandatory stay-at-home order, the premier said "that's pretty tough," adding that a majority of people are co-operating.
"I just don't understand what people are thinking that go to these parks and even along the Lakeshore when they're jogging," he said, trying to point out the risks to those who do this. "A jogger is going along or people walking, someone sneezes. It goes on the sidewalk. You don't know, you walk over it. They have (COVID-19), all of a sudden, you're carrying it home on the bottom of your shoes."
"You're putting everyone in jeopardy," he said, suggesting that maybe "hefty fines" would discourage people from not following public health guidelines.
Masks for non-frontline workers
Canada's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Theresa Tam said during a media briefing Monday that wearing non-medical masks, such as ones made at home, "is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you in situations where physical distancing is difficult to maintain."
Her recent statements suggesting that people should mask up when going to the grocery story or taking transit come as concern grows about asymptomatic transmission of the novel coronavirus.
Ford gave his support of this last week and again on Monday, saying that "if you can get your hands on some, by all means."
But he stressed that it's important people leave the available medical masks for frontline workers.
Photo credit: Steve Russell/Toronto Star