Ontario is beating its previous "best-case" COVID-19 scenario, but it's too soon to start re-opening the economy, health officials say.
Newly released provincial modelling shows that new cases of community spread of the novel coronavirus appear to have peaked. That means physical distancing measures are working, but they will need to remain in place for "a few more weeks" to avoid a second wave, Premier Doug Ford told reporters on Monday.
"We're not out of the woods yet — far from it," Ford said, though there is "some light at the end of the tunnel."
Earlier models predicted a peak of cases in May, but public health measures, including "widespread adherence to physical distancing" have brought that timeline up, the provincial report says. Since epidemics follow a symmetrical shape, Ontario will likely see the number of new cases drop in the coming weeks, officials said.
The province previously modelled three scenarios: a worst case, similar to Italy's situation; a medium case; and a best case, which would look like South Korea's experience. At the peak of the epidemic, the projected intensive care beds needed in the worst case scenario was about 5,000. The medium case would have needed about 700, and the best case less than 400. Ontario is currently beating all three scenarios, according to the provincial modelling.
But while cases in the general public should slow down in the near future, cases in Ontario's long-term care homes among staff and residents continue to climb. And because the current data represents information from two or three weeks ago, it will be a little while until it's clear whether the government's long-term care action plan will achieve its desired effect.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on the government to do more to protect care homes, such as including temp agency workers in its one-worker-one-facility order; taking over direct management of some long-term care facilities; and testing all residents and staff in all congregate care facilities, which would also include shelters and retirement homes.
The Tories "should have been better prepared and stepped in much earlier to remedy these wrongs which made people in care incredibly vulnerable," Horwath said in a statement. "There’s no excuse for the delays, but today — right now — the government can still take action to protect people and stop tragedy from striking more lives, and more families.”
Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti has said the province should call for help from the army as Markham care facility Participation House has seen two deaths from the pandemic. Ford didn't rule that out, but said there are no current plans to do so. It has been discussed, and there is a plan in place if it becomes necessary, he said.
Horwath and NDP homelessness critic Rima Berns-McGown urged the government to use hotel and dormitory rooms to house homeless people, who are at greater risk for COVID-19.
“Shelters were crowded at crisis levels before the pandemic began — it’s impossible to practice physical distancing there,” Berns-McGown said in a statement. “If we don’t step up protections and put in place a much stronger plan, we’re going to see preventable deaths, and new infections spread like wildfire."
Ford said his team is looking into using hotels, but did not elaborate further.
Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario head Doris Grinspun called for universal testing everywhere people are living in close quarters — such as in congregate care, prisons and Indigenous communities.
"If we don't, we will find ourselves sooner rather than later not only with more lost lives, but also we will find ourselves hit faster with a second wave, and a third wave and so on," she told reporters Monday afternoon.
Though Ford said the lockdown would last "a few more weeks," he declined to say when life could return to normal. Neither did the officials who released the modelling: Ontario Health CEO Matthew Anderson, University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health Dean Steini Brown, and Ontario Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Barbara Yaffe.
"This thing could bite us in the backside in about 10 seconds," Ford said. He added that while it's difficult to shut down the economy of Canada's largest province, it will be even harder to start it back up again safely. He declined to say which industries would be higher priorities for revival, calling the discussion "premature."
Ford noted that a provincial committee is working to determine how best to re-open the economy.
"Rest assured, we are actively planning for what comes next," Health Minister Christine Elliott said.
Both Ford and Elliott, as well as the health officials, thanked Ontarians for their cooperation. It is because people have stuck to distancing guidelines that the province is on the right track, they said.
"Thanks to all of you, we have so far avoided the worst-case scenario that we were all dreading," Ford said.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said he supports the government's cautious approach to re-opening the economy, and took a shot at U.S. President Donald Trump in the process.
"We cannot fall prey to the reckless impulses from down south about ‘liberating’ the economy," he said. "We need a cautious approach based on the advice of health officials."
Yaffe was on the same page at the health press conference earlier that afternoon. She said the lifting of restrictions must be done carefully, because once Ontarians have a taste of the freedoms they once enjoyed, it would be very difficult to persuade them to retreat back indoors — especially in the warm glow of summer.
Relaxing measures too early has had consequences elsewhere in the world, Ontario Hospital Association President Anthony Dale said in a statement.
"Japan, for example, is now returning to more restrictive physical distancing after a period of eased measures that led to an increase in the number of new cases. Additionally, South Korea recently reported almost 100 patients thought to have recovered from COVID-19 have tested positive again, raising questions about immunity and the possibility of reinfection," he said.
When distancing guidelines are relaxed, Yaffe added, it will not be like a "light switch." It will be "very gradual," she said, as individual rules are tinkered with and carefully measured to ensure Ontario is not plunged back into another serious outbreak.
"Everyone needs to continue to stay home as much as possible," she said. "These actions are making a big difference, and you need to stay the course, stay strong, to save lives."