By Sneh Duggal and Jessica Smith Cross
Premier Doug Ford's cabinet met Thursday amid speculation of more restrictions as Ontario faced another record high in new COVID-19 cases.
"Unfortunately, our situation is dire," said Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe at a media update on the latest COVID statistics. "I really wish that I had better news to give you today. These data are alarming (and) should be of tremendous concern for everyone."
The province reported 4,736 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, a jump from its previous high of 4,456 on April 11, with a test positivity rate of 8 per cent. Another 29 people have also died from COVID-19. Ontario hospitals continue to be at crisis levels, with 55 more people with COVID-19 being admitted for a total of 1,932. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units also continues to climb and has now reached 623.
Yaffe added that she's been briefing the media for over a year and described previous statistics as "worrisome" or "scary" but they were nowhere near where they are now. Yaffe, who works within the Ministry of Health, said work is underway with the province's science advisory table, Public Health and others on additional potential public health restrictions.
Yaffe said that options are being presented to the government, based on advice from the science table and others, on what measures could be effective but have not yet been undertaken in Ontario. She added that outbreaks are taking place in workplaces, schools and child-care centres, group homes and other congregate settings, but that most of the transmission occurs within homes.
The province is currently under a stay-at-home order and new modelling is expected to be shared on Friday. The last modelling update was April 1, when the province announced a shutdown order.
Asked what the modelling will show, Yaffe put it this way: "Things are not going to get better if we don't change what we're doing, things will in fact get worse."
She urged people to remember what streets were like in the early days of the pandemic when they were nearly empty: "We have to go back to that. We have to think about it the way we did then."
Early in the day, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said cabinet was seized with the issue of how to "knock down this third wave."
"And when we see intensive care unit beds going up, when we see the positivity rates increase across our community, we're all concerned," she said.
Jones declined to share any details of what would be discussed by ministers, citing cabinet confidentiality.
There has been speculation about whether the Ford government would follow Quebec's lead and impose a curfew, following tweets from Sun journalist Brian Lilley. Some Quebecers have protested the curfew in recent days in places like Montreal and Quebec City.
The @fordnation cabinet is meeting right now to discuss further restrictions - curfew has been raised, more police enforcement etc. - all backed by polling saying the public supports more restrictions and modelling from the Science Table saying 12,000 cases per day soon. pic.twitter.com/M5TY6Wf7gR
— Brian Lilley (@brianlilley) April 15, 2021
Asked if she would support a curfew, Jones said the riots in Montreal signalled the challenge of enforcing such a measure and people's acceptance of it. But she didn't rule it out.
"All options are on the table," she said, adding that she thinks most Ontarians "do the right thing" when they understand the severity of COVID-19.
"We need to ensure that the small percentage of people who continue to flaunt the rules are held accountable, and as I've said many times if that means that more fines have to be laid, then so be it because it's about saving lives," said Jones.
The minister went on to voice her frustration with the protests in Montreal and those who aren't following public health guidelines in Ontario.
"I am concerned when I see photos of people who are clearly not socially distancing in parks, I'm concerned when I see that there are lineups unnecessarily and people are not respecting the stay-at-home order, they're not respecting the social distancing," said Jones. "Look, this is serious. People are dying in the province of Ontario because people aren't wearing a mask — how ridiculous is that? We have to get better."
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it opposed the idea of a curfew.
"There is no evidence that a curfew would help with the public health crisis we are facing. We do know that a curfew would empower police to stop and question people for no reason," said Cara Zwibel, director of fundamental freedoms for the association, in a statement.
"Those already subject to disproportionate police scrutiny are likely to be the targets," said Zwibel, likening the measure to being more about "government control."
"Imposing a curfew is an admission that the government has run out of ideas. It is an unnecessary and disproportionate measure that is likely to do more harm than good."
Opposition politicians blamed the Ford government for the situation the province is in now.
"I can say that it should never have come to this," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. She slammed the government for not listening to the experts who issued warnings about the third wave, but she declined to say whether she thinks a curfew is needed now.
Liberal health critic John Fraser said he believes the province needs stronger measures in place. "This is the worst it's been and it's not going down," he said. "It's still going up. So the government's been slow to act [and two] steps behind, and that's why we have to take more dramatic measures, stronger measures to keep each other safe."
Likewise, Green Leader Mike Schreiner said something has to change. "And that something is the premier's active hostility to supporting vulnerable low-wage workers in essential workplaces," he said, calling on the province to implement paid sick days and paid time off for vaccinations.
Discussions about the possibility of increased public health measures come as the government continues to face criticism on its vaccine rollout strategy. The government has continuously said the issue comes down to supply, while critics say more should be done to get essential workers vaccinated quicker.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, a member of the vaccine task force as well as the province's chief coroner, said the province is racing to use vaccines to prevent loss of life and hospital admissions.
"But we can't win that race this month," he said. "These numbers aren't going to be stopped by the vaccine. But we need to be taking all of the steps that we can to provide vaccine as quickly as we receive them, as quickly as we can, in areas of those people that are at risk themselves for individual factors and also areas where people may be living or residing, which are also identified at risk."
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of Ontario's vaccine distribution task force, said on social media on Thursday that while the province's administration of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been timely, the uptake of the AstraZeneca vaccine has been slow.
The vaccine, which has been distributed to pharmacies and primary care providers, has also faced scrutiny after reports of rare cases of people developing blood clots following vaccination.
9. We could probably administer significantly more AstraZenca vaccine through some combination of:
1) transparent & effective communication
2) lowering age cutoff below 55
3) expanding role of primary care
— Isaac Bogoch (@BogochIsaac) April 15, 2021
But Jones said a number of pharmacies that were administering the vaccine have run out of doses.
"I know that we hear and are reading a lot about vaccine hesitancy, but what I am seeing on the ground and we are confirming this with numbers and talking to our pharmacy partners, is in fact that's not the case," she said.
That said, pharmacy clinic booking websites showed vacancies Thursday, with some taking walk-ins from people aged 55-plus to fill open spots.