In a pair of significant policy reversals, the government is marshalling more resources to combat the "wildfire" of fatalities in Ontario's long-term care homes.
On Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford announced that he would call in the military to assist at five priority long-term care homes that have been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. Ontario has seen 400 fatalities in its long-term care homes so far, representing almost two-thirds of the 659 deaths related to COVID-19 in the province.
"We're putting resources where they're needed most," said the premier in the announcement, made during his daily press availability. "Every set of boots on the ground will make a difference in this fight."
The decision to request military assistance, as Quebec did last week, follows extensive questions about whether the province would do so, with the premier saying as recently as Monday that there were no plans in the works. He said last Thursday that the option was "on the table" but they wouldn't do so at the time. And on April 11, Health Minister Christine Elliott said that the option was on the table, but, "I don’t think military aid is required at this point because we have had thousands of medical professionals who have come forward that are willing to help out."
In the meantime the crisis in long-term care homes has become acute, with two pandemics playing out in Ontario — one that has not met the expectations of infection and hospital crowding in the general public, and another that has devastated the province's over 600 long-term care homes, where older residents are at greater risk of COVID-19 complications.
When asked what changed, Ford acknowledged that the province had been preparing for overcrowded hospitals, and shifted resources to long-term care homes once that crisis did not materialize but another one did. "We thought we'd have full hospitals. That's not the case."
There will be about 50 military personnel per facility, for a total of 250. When asked, Long-term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton declined to say where they would be stationed, saying that the conditions on the ground are fluid.
The government will also begin to test all patients and staff in long-term care homes, whether they have symptoms or not, and will immediately test all residents and staff in long-term care homes where symptoms have been displayed. The news, released in a ministry memo, was first reported by CTV.
The announcement follows criticism that the government has not tested extensively enough; of all Canadian provinces Ontario has the lowest per-capita testing level, and failed to meet its original target of 18,000 daily tests by mid-April.
The premier displayed frustration over the outcomes, and passed the buck to Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams, saying that he has "powers that I don't have" and that his jurisdiction is separate from the premier's office.
The premier allowed that after the pandemic there will be room to make improvements to best practices for how to approach these kinds of issues. "I think we should change a lot of things after this pandemic."
Asked in his 3 p.m. presser whether the premier had thrown him under the bus, Williams framed it as being on the same page. "I think the frustration the premier had is the same I've had," he said, going on to cite one particular problem as issues with available reagent and swabs that limited testing capacity.
A statement from the Liberal Party slammed the premier for saying that the responsibility rests with Williams, pointing out that calling for military aid is part of his power as premier. It said that while the medical officer of health can issue recommendations on issues such as limiting staff to working in only one long-term care home, it falls to the premier to issue orders. "While the chief medical officer made a recommendation on this it was not binding. The authority to make a binding decision rests solely with the premier and cabinet. One month after BC took action, the Premier issued an order in council which took effect today."
The premier also allowed a glimmer of hope that public health measures could be somewhat eased in time for the May 24 long weekend. In a radio appearance on CFRA 580 Ford said that "if we continue down the road we are going publicly, yes." He prefaced his remarks by saying that the economy opening would be done based on the advice from medical experts and that it would only be done to "a trickle" to avoid a potential second wave.
Green Leader Mike Schreiner questioned why it took the government so long to implement policies undertaken by other jurisdictions and that opposition MPPs had repeatedly called for. "It took them a full month after the first outbreak to limit healthcare staff to one facility. And only today is the government finally agreeing to test every resident in a long-term care home after opposition parties called for this for weeks. The Premier must answer for why Ontario did not act quicker to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care homes," he said in a statement.
The premier also said that Education Minister Stephen Lecce will come out with a statement on the balance of the school year in the coming days, and that it would offer parents and students certainty.