With hospital intensive care units reaching capacity in parts of the province, Premier Doug Ford issued a stay-at-home order Wednesday and declared a province-wide state of emergency for the third time since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than a year ago.
“Please stay at home unless it is for an essential reason,” he said during a press conference.
The move significantly tightens pandemic restrictions put in place less than a week ago. That earlier shut down was widely criticized as being ineffective against rising case counts and more dangerous variants of concern.
In recent days, doctors, mainly from the Toronto area, have gone on social media to talk about critically ill patients who are younger and sicker than seen earlier in the pandemic, due to variants of concern. Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children has offered space for adult ICU patients to assist overflowing hospitals in the city.
In Ottawa, hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients and postponing non-urgent surgeries, something not widely done since the beginning of the pandemic, a year ago.
“This wave is different,” Ford said. “The variants are transmitted more easily, putting more lives at risk. Our health partners are concerned and many of them are afraid. Our hospitals are being hit hard. What we do will be the difference between life and death for … people.”
The new stay-at-home order is aimed at reducing spread of COVID-19 by limiting peoples’ mobility while vaccinations ramp up. On Tuesday, more than 100,000 people were vaccinated — a new provincial record.
While stores and malls remained open at reduced capacity throughout the long weekend, the new restrictions limit most retailers to curbside pickup only, with the exception of groceries, pharmacies and a few other businesses. Big box stores must limit sales to essential items and rope off other aisles. People are being asked to limit trips outside their homes and not travel to other regions of the province. Schools will remain open except in parts of the province where local health units have ordered them closed.
Both Ford and Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams said Wednesday that the stay at home order and tougher restrictions were necessary because the landscape changed over the weekend with an “alarming” surge in COVID-19 ICU patients. Between March 28 and April 5, the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care grew by 25 per cent in the province, and continues to grow.
“It was different than the experts told me last week. Simple as that,” Ford said in response to a question about why the province didn’t take strong action sooner.
In fact, provincial models had predicted critical care bed capacity similar to what is now being seen in Ontario and have warned for weeks that the variants of concern would surge dramatically.
But Williams said the rapid rise in ICU patients with COVID is what required urgent action.
“This is a crisis in our health-care system that we want to solve before it get worse,” he said.
The province will also start vaccinating teachers next week in the highest risk areas of Toronto and Peel, the hardest-hit parts of the province. It will also vaccinate special education teachers across the province.
They will also send mobile vaccination clinics to so-called hot-spot neighbourhoods where people over 18 will be eligible for a needle. Provincial officials said they would target large employers, congregate settings, residential buildings and faith-based settings in those neighbourhoods.
The plan will begin with hot spot neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel, but the province has also identified such neighbourhoods in the rest of the province. In Ottawa, that list includes areas with postal codes beginning with K1T and K1V, including Herongate and Hunt Club areas, and areas with the postal code K2V, which includes parts of Kanata Lakes and Stittsville, where COVID-19 case counts have not been high.
In a statement, the city said Ottawa Public Health is already focused on 21 high-risk neighbourhoods, including some within those postal codes the province identified, and will continue that work. The postal codes identified by the province as hot spots do not all have high case counts. It is unclear how they were selected.
Ontario lowered the age for mass vaccination to 60 this week and will continue to ramp up immunizations as supply increases, said provincial officials. Ford said 40 per cent of adults in the province should have at least one dose of vaccine by the end of the four-week stay at home order.
The Ontario government has been under pressure to implement paid sick days in order to reduce cases in factories, warehouses and other workplaces. Ford said the federal government has paid sick leave available.
Ontarians could face fines of up to $750 for violating the stay at home order.
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As of 12:01 a.m. Thursday:
• People are required to stay at home in Ontario except for essential purposes and limit contact to people they live with. Essential trips include shopping for groceries, going to a pharmacy or accessing health services or going to work (for those who can’t work remotely).
• Outdoor exercise is allowed if it is close to home and alone or with people you live with.
• Non-essential stores will only be open for curbside pickup between the hours of 7 a.m and 8 p.m.
• Access to shopping malls will only be for curbside pickup and delivery by appointment.
• Stores that can remain open include pharmacies and stores that sell food and alcohol.
• Big box stores that sell groceries will have to block off other products and only make groceries, pharmacy items and household cleaning products available, with a reduced capacity.
• Other stores allowed to open at reduced capacity include outdoor garden centres, safety supply stores, retail stores operated by telecommunications providers, stores that primarily sell or rent assistive devices or supplies, optical stores, businesses that sell motor vehicles, vehicle equipment, repair and rental businesses.
• Schools and child care remain open in most of the province, including Ottawa.
• Ontario says it will expand vaccinations in hot spot areas, beginning in parts of Toronto and Peel. It will also increase workplace inspections and rapid testing.