By Sneh Duggal and Jack Hauen
California lab contract "temporary step"
The Progressive Conservative government faced questions from the opposition on Wednesday about a CBC report revealing that COVID-19 swabs done at Ontario pharmacies are being sent for processing to Quest Diagnostics in California.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday Ontarians' swabs aren't being sent to any other state south of the border.
"We want to make sure we can process all of the swabs in a timely manner," she told reporters, adding that the province is working to continue building up lab capacity in Ontario.
She called the contract with the California lab a "temporary step."
"It’s not something that we anticipate continuing over a long period of time, but we needed to have those swabs tested within three days or they go stale, or people would have had to come back for another test, which we didn’t want to have happen," Elliott said. "It’s bad enough that people had to wait in line or wait for a period of time to have a test done that we didn’t want to have them come back a second time."
The health minister also said the province isn't facing a shortage of COVID-19 testing kits and that Prince Edward Island is sending over some as "a gesture of goodwill."
"Other provinces aren’t facing the same numbers of COVID as we are, and as the premier likes to say, that’s the true Canadian spirit to pitch in and help out where they can," Elliott said. "Right now no, we don’t have any lack of swabs, reagent is short supply but that’s around the world, but we are fine for reagent for the time being."
Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday that he spoke with P.E.I. Premier Dennis King, who offered to send Ontario 8,000 tests — a gesture that had Ontario's premier promising to visit the east coast island.
"You gotta love the east coasters, they are the type of people in a crisis you knock on the door, without even knowing them, they’d invite you in, you’d be sitting there having dinner with them, and they’d give their shirts off their back," said Ford. "Premier King, and all the folks of P.E.I., I love you, I will be there and we’re going to have the best Ford Fest BBQ P.E.I. has ever seen when I get out there."
Turning to other jurisdictions
The province is exploring measures other jurisdictions have taken to combat COVID-19 to see if any of them could apply to Ontario, but Elliott said the government wouldn't be following Australia's lead.
Recent modelling released by the province showed Ontario moving along a similar trajectory to the state of Victoria in Australia, which saw a spike in cases in early August that led to a nightly curfew, the closure of schools and other restrictions.
"We’re not looking at something that stringent, but what we’re looking at is other jurisdictions like Germany," said Elliott. "They kept up their measures consistently through the summer and they’re not facing as large a second wave as we are."
She said there are other places that have brought in stringent measures due to a significant spike, resulting in the COVID-19 cases decreasing quickly.
"We’re looking at those jurisdictions to really understand what might apply to Ontario, what might be useful, because of course we’re as concerned as everyone else is with a significant rise with 797 cases," she said, adding that she wants to work with local medical officers of health to "understand what is going to be most effective to help flatten the curve."
Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa has already called on the province to implement further restrictions including the closure of indoor services at restaurants and bars for 28 days.
Liberal house leader John Fraser said the province should have examined Germany's efforts earlier.
"I think considering it in October or the end of September, it’s too late," he said. "Germany has been very successful at keeping their economy going and protecting its citizens, they were able to do both things, a lot of it is was through testing, which should have happened here in Ontario."
Cases hit record high, CMOH blames Ontarians
With 797 new COVID-19 cases in one day, the province is in uncharted territory when it comes to the virus. And as Toronto's top doctor and other infectious disease experts call on the province to shut down risky activities like indoor dining at bars and restaurants, Ontario's chief medical officer doubled down on the idea that individuals' choices are the key to beating back the second wave.
A visibly frustrated Dr. David Williams blamed Ontarians for having "imploded" social circles, and said people who test positive often have more close contacts, which hampers contact tracing efforts.
“My thinking is, I don't understand that. Why would you have that kind of thing? What did you not understand about our messaging?” he said.
Experts have heavily criticized the province's public health messaging for its layers of confusing, often contradictory guidelines. Some have called for Williams to resign or be fired due to his personal lack of communication skills.
The chief medical officer appeared to deny responsibility for rising cases, despite officials and experts calling on the province to implement more restrictions, with as Toronto's chief medical officer saying last week almost half of recent outbreaks had been linked to indoor venues like bars and restaurants.
“The public health measures are measures that we put in place sometimes when people aren’t doing their public health measures,” he said. "And that's the concerning part, is that we can put some of these things in place. You can limit things around certain actions. People can still ignore that and walk around that if they want. I don't agree with that. People, if they adhere to all this, then the other measures, we don't need, because if people did what they're supposed to do."
As he read off the new numbers, Williams said "the alarm bells are ringing louder and louder."
Most of the cases are still in people under 40, but they're "nudging up" in older age groups, he said — a significant problem as the virus spreads to those more vulnerable to its worst effects.
“We saw that in the first wave and we’re starting to see it again now,” Williams said. “So the time for concern, and great concern, is at hand."
The virus is also spreading more beyond the main drivers of Toronto, Ottawa and Peel, with double-digit increases in York, Halton, Simcoe Muskoka and Durham, Williams said.
There are currently 206 people with COVID-19 in hospital in Ontario, with 47 in intensive care. Those numbers were 162 and 36, respectively, last Thursday. While those may not seem like large numbers yet, Williams said hospital spikes usually come two to three weeks after spikes in cases, which the province is seeing now.
Despite being asked multiple times, Williams refused to say whether he has recommended to cabinet to close indoor dining at bars and restaurants, or what new guidance might be forthcoming from the government
“I would say stay tuned to see what announcements are going to be made,” he said.
New education adviser
The Ontario government has hired Dr. Joshua Tepper, former president and CEO of North York General Hospital, as its education health adviser.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement Thursday that Tepper has been tasked to work with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, Provincial Outbreak Response Coordinator Dr. Dirk Huyer, other ministries, school boards and front-line partners "to help ensure ongoing adherence to Ontario's school reopening plan."
"As our province and the world face a second wave of COVID-19, we are strengthening our capacity to respond," said Lecce. "We are leveraging the expertise and talents of medical leaders to advise us on how to maximize safety while we face this second wave."
He said Tepper's "experience in the early stages of the pandemic on the front lines as a health care leader will be invaluable to ensuring our schools are implementing effective preventive measures and are operating as safely as possible."
As we enter the second wave, we continue to be informed by medical expertise to keep schools safe.@fordnation & I welcomed @DrJoshuaTepper - former President of @NYGH_News, senior MoH civil servant, CEO of Health Quality Ontario - as Education’s Health Advisor.#ONpoli pic.twitter.com/lvnzhr9aoi
— Stephen Lecce (@Sflecce) October 7, 2020