Premier Doug Ford is putting his faith in Ontario researchers to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
The premier spoke Saturday of the $20 million investment the province is making through the COVID-19 Rapid Research Fund — an initiative that was first announced on March 25 when the Progressive Conservative government unveiled its economic statement and action plan to respond to the novel coronavirus. Ford also cautioned that a vaccine will be necessary before things "get back to normal," echoing a recent message from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
"I know that we are all eager to get back to work and get back to normal, but the reality is we have to remember that until we find a vaccine for his terrible virus...letting our guard down means potentially exposing millions of our people to the virus," said Ford at a press conference on Saturday afternoon.
"The hard fact is until we find a vaccine, going back to normal means putting lives at risk," said Ford. "We’re putting $20 million towards Ontario-based research into COVID-19 because the world needs a vaccine and there’s no reason why that vaccine can’t be found right here in Ontario."
Politicians have faced numerous questions in recent days about when Canadians can expect an easing of the physical distancing measures currently in place, with Ford sharing a similar message to the prime minister on Saturday.
"We will have to be vigilant for a year or a year and a half, there are things that we will not be able to do, but there will be a lot more things that we will be able to do and that will be if and only if we come through the next few weeks and the next few months properly," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on April 9. "Normality as it was before will not come back full-on until we get a vaccine for this, and...that could be a very long way off."
Minister of Colleges and Universities Ross Romano said the government wants to "help find that vaccine and we believe we can find that vaccine right here in Ontario."
Public colleges or universities along with research hospitals and institutes are being asked to submit their research proposals through the government's Ontario Together website by April 24. The government said funding could go towards a range of COVID-19 projects including "researching the COVID-19 strain, developing a vaccine, enhancing testing procedures, or improving modelling tools to help track the virus."
"We want to secure proposals that have a high chance of success and that can do so in a very quick fashion," Romano said. "We want to find a vaccine at the soonest possible opportunity like all of you."
He said several institutions are already doing important work like Sunnybrook Hospital and McMaster University isolating the COVID-19 virus or universities that are taking blood and plasma donations from people who have recovered from COVID-19 in order to both develop a vaccine and try to find a way to treat those with the virus.
Modelling and restrictions
Ford said the provincial modelling information that is expected to be released on Monday will "help us chart the course for the coming weeks and months."
"On Monday we will see how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go," said Ford, adding that Ontarians' efforts are "paying off."
On his decision to release modelling — this will be the second time — Ford said "you deserve to hear from the same experts and get the same information that I have access to as premier."
Asked about easing any of the public health measures in place, Ford voiced his opposition to moving too quickly.
"We just have to be so cautious," he said. "It's so so difficult (the) decision to shut down the economy; in my opinion it’s going to be twice as difficult to open this up and do it methodically," he said.
Health Minister Christine Elliott shared this sentiment, saying the province needs to ensure COVID-19 spread in the community has "come to a point where it’s safe to loosen some of those restrictions."
"We’re not through the first wave yet," she said.
The province reported 485 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, with the total number of cases now at 10,010. There were 36 new deaths reported for a a total of 514.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said 227 of the new COVID-19 cases were related to long-term care homes — 147 residents and 80 staff — and 258 were in the community. The long-term care cases accounted for about 47 per cent of the new cases, a decrease from yesterday's 59 per cent and Thursday's 53 per cent.
The province's epidemiological summary, which outlines more specifics on COVID-19 cases, noted Saturday that data from Toronto Public Health could be incomplete for cases reported after April 16 due to "technical issues."
Long-term care management
After more than 50 deaths have been reported at the Eatonville Care Centre in Etobicoke and the Anson Place Care Centre in Hagersville, Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton was asked about the province's willingness to step in and take control of the facilities.
The SEIU Healthcare, a union representing 60,000 frontline workers in Canada, recently called on the government to put the homes "in trusteeship."
"This situation in Ontario on how we manage homes or how we support the management of homes has evolved differently than (in) British Columbia and Quebec," said Fullerton. "Ontario does not manage homes, that is the way that our system has evolved. However, we do work to create the co-ordination with management groups that will go in and help our long-term care homes."
Fullerton said teams from Trillium Health Partners and Toronto Public Health are supporting Eatonville Care Centre. She said the government's recent action plan allows for hospitals to help long-term care homes with staffing help, infection prevention and control and advice on how a home could be providing care differently.
SEIU Healthcare President Sharleen Stewart said in an April 17 statement that she thinks "management at these facilities have failed." The province does have the legal authority under provincial legislation to issue a mandatory management order that forces a long-term care home to hire external management at their own expense.
Asked whether the government would consider this in the case of these two homes, Fullerton said, "that is something that we can do and as I’ve mentioned before we can co-ordinate that if homes reach out, they’re having difficulties, that’s exactly what happens."
Border restrictions extended
The prime minister announced on Saturday that Canada's agreement with the United States to keep the border closed to non-essential travel will be extended for another 30 days. The initial deal, which restricted tourists from crossing the border while still allowing for business travel to occur in order to keep supply chains open, went into effect on March 21 and was set to end on April 21.
Trudeau said the new agreement is the same as the previous one and that he expects essential goods and medical equipment will continue to flow between the two countries.
Premier Ford said a few days ago that the federal government should keep the border with the U.S. closed.
"Trudeau should say no right away," Ford said when asked about the possibility of the U.S. loosening its restrictions. "Until we have this under containment, we need to have our borders closed."
Meanwhile, Trudeau also reminded Canadians that even though the federal government is requiring airplane passengers to wear a non-medical mask starting April 20, people should not be travelling for non-essential reasons.
Trudeau said he doesn't want people to start traveling whether they’re wearing a mask or not and also said officials and scientists would have discussions about whether this measure will be recommended once physical distancing measures start to ease up.
Photo Credit: Steve Russell/Toronto Star