By Jack Hauen and Jessica Smith Cross
Despite Premier Doug Ford's exhortations for more COVID-19 testing in Ontario, the province has not yet hit its target of 20,000 tests per day, recently falling well below its previous 16,000-test goal with fewer than 12,000 completed on Monday.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said test volumes were nevertheless "high," and blamed the shortcomings on a "transportation problem" that happens on weekends.
"It's just not physically possible to move some of the samples from the test sites to the labs," she said, adding that she hopes as the economy opens up, the province will have "more transportation opportunities."
In her media availability, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said, "I know that my son orders stuff online and they get delivered on the weekend."
"The key to successful reopening is ramping up that testing capacity, and the government is not meeting its own targets," she said, adding that there have been "no clear answers" from the government on why its targets have not been met.
Later in the government's presser, Ford noted that Ontario has recently been leading the country in per-capita testing, after initially lagging behind other provinces. The province still sits behind Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories in cumulative tests per capita.
But, Ford said, "I don't believe in excuses. I believe in hitting the numbers. So we want to hit 20,000. We have everything that we need. We need to hit 20,000."
He agreed that there needs to be random community testing for the province to get a sense of the impact of COVID-19 as the economy opens up, but said his first priority is getting all long-term care residents and health-care workers tested. The province is aiming to have that done by the end of this week, he said.
After that, the testing focus will shift to other congregate living areas, like retirement homes and group homes, Ford said.
"I agree, we need to do that random testing as well. So as soon as we work on the emergencies — right now it's long-term care — we will make sure that we have the opportunity to randomly test and also track and trace as well," he said.
Ford noted that there are "quite a few" drive-through testing facilities across the province, including in his home riding of Etobicoke North.
"As much as we are focusing on long-term care, if you show symptoms, then I would highly recommend that you go get tested," he said.
Overall new cases in the province went up on Tuesday, from 308 on Monday to 361 today. But Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said that might be "good news," if this is the week's high point.
"So we'll have to see what happens as the week goes by," he said in his daily afternoon press conference.
There have been a total of 20,907 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ontario. Of those, 15,390 cases have been resolved. There have been 1,725 deaths.
Public health estimates
Volume One of the Expenditure Estimates for the 2020-21 fiscal year was tabled in the legislature Tuesday, outlining the plans to spend some $165,216,891,552 in capital and operating expenses.
One notable expense is a $2-billion boost to public health spending, mostly thanks to a $1.8 billion booked as the COVID-19 Health Sector Response Fund as part of the province's Population and Public Health Program. Overall, the estimates show health-care funding increased by $3 billion over last year.
The estimates also show another big-ticket and line item this year — a $5.6-billion spend on electricity rate mitigation, the cost of subsidizing hydro bills.
Some medical professionals are frustrated at being left out of the province's pandemic pay bump, though Elliott said the ministry is still reviewing who should receive the $4-per-hour temporary boost.
Elliott said a number of workers have "quite compelling reasons why they should be included" in the bump.
"So we're still listening to them, we're still understanding why they weren't included in the first place and are still looking to expand if necessary, because we want everyone who has been a frontline care provider to be recognized with this small token of financial assistance, but they deserve to be recognized for being at the bedside as well," she said.
And the reason that extra cash hasn't flowed yet is because the government is still figuring out who should get it, by talking with stakeholders like the Ontario Hospital Association, she added. “Those discussions continue on a daily basis.”
Horwath said it was "disappointing" that more workers didn't receive the pay bump off the bat.
"It’s easy to talk about our frontline heroes and our health-care heroes, and the language that’s being used is great and I appreciate that passion and that language. But that language and that passion has to translate into real differences for folks who are on the frontlines, so when you’re talking about that pay bump...it should err on the side of covering all workers as opposed to just carving out certain folks who are ineligible," she said.
Horwath noted that Elliott didn't commit to this, adding that she hoped the government would "let every single hero on the frontlines of our health-care system, whether you work in dietary, whether you’re working as a PSW, whether you’re working as a technician or a cleaner" be eligible for the pay boost.
The two newest Liberal MPPs took part in their first question period on Tuesday after being sworn in at Queen's Park the day before.
Lucille Collard and Stephen Blais, the members for Ottawa—Vanier and Orléans, were sworn in in a physically distant ceremony with limited staff on Monday, according to a Liberal news release.
“Since getting elected at the end of February, I have been working for residents of Ottawa-Vanier by providing them with information relating to COVID-19 and calling on the government to assist. Today, I am privileged to continue to represent them and take my seat at the Legislature,” Collard said in the release.
“I am humbled that the residents of Orléans have put their faith in me and I am ready to continue working hard on their behalf at Queen’s Park to move Orléans and all of Ontario forward,” Blais said.
Collard and Blais won their seats in by-elections on Feb. 27.
Let's not go to the Ex
Ford expressed his disappointment that the Canadian National Exhibition would be closing for the first time in 142 years. The premier said he had gone every year since he could remember.
"I remember going to the CNE with five, ten dollars in my hand, and you'd be there all day," he said, adding that he'll miss it.
"But these are some of the sacrifices that we're facing as a society."
With files from Sneh Duggal