Premier Doug Ford is calling on big-city residents and snowbirds to avoid self-isolating at their cottages amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and instead stay in their hometowns.
On Saturday, provincial officials announced 151 new lab-confirmed cases of the respiratory illness, for a total of 1,144 cases reported to date. So far, at least 18 people across the province who have tested positive have died and eight others have recovered.
Ford says he’s been hearing from mayors in towns scattered throughout the province’s extensive cottage country that local health resources are already struggling to keep up with the outbreak and an influx of new arrivals will make the situation worse.
Doctors in some of those communities say they don’t have enough testing kits, protective gear, or other tools necessary to help keep the pandemic at bay.
Ford’s comments followed three new deaths on Friday, including two at the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., a popular tourist destination town in Kawartha Lakes.
At least 14 staff members at the home are also infected, along with three more residents beyond the two who died.
Public health officials said 60 of the province’s active COVID-19 cases were in hospital on Friday.
According to associate chief medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe, 43 of those people are in intensive care units — up from 29 on Thursday and 17 on Wednesday — and 32 are currently on ventilators.
The high number of cases has prompted concern among clinicians over hospital readiness, both in rural areas and larger cities.
Julie Nardi, a respiratory therapist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, told CBC News on Saturday that her hospital has taken a number of steps to increase capacity for the higher numbers of COVID-19 patients clinicians are expecting.
The hospital’s existing COVID-19 unit, she added, is “almost at capacity” already.
Nardi said there are also fears about front-line healthcare workers running short on supplies, with masks being the “big concern.”
“We have taken the same stance as many of the other hospitals in that we’re being allocated two masks per shift — per 12-hour shift — for employees that work in a clinical area,” she said.
“So that has been very challenging because if you have to go into a patient room, you know it’s hot, you have a lot of equipment on, and sweat is pouring down your face and you know, you wonder how protected you really are.”
Ontario aiming for 5,000 tests a day
The rising number of cases in local ICUs, coupled with a backlog of pending COVID-19 test results and large numbers of residents who haven’t been tested at all, is also fuelling concern that the virus has spread more widely than the official numbers suggest.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams said Ontario has started to make progress on the backlog, which dropped for the first time Friday from nearly 11,000 to just over 10,000 pending results.
Health officials say more lab testing sites are opening and Ontario hopes to be doing 5,000 tests a day by the end of the weekend.
Meanwhile, the chair of the province’s COVID-19 command table says postponing elective surgeries has freed up capacity in hospitals, noting there were roughly 400 critical care beds available across the province on Friday.
The current ICU occupancy rate in the province is 68 per cent.
Provincial officials are also working to protect Ontario’s supply chain to ensure front-line health-care workers have much-needed equipment, like ventilators, masks, and swabs, according to a release from the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.
In addition, the province is removing barriers allowing Ontario’s manufacturing sector to redeploy capacity toward the production of healthcare equipment.
“COVID-19 is impacting supply chains across Canada, and around the world,” said Lisa Thompson, Minister of Government and Consumer Services, in a statement on Saturday.
Federal government ramping up travel restrictions
On a country-wide level, the federal government is ramping up travel restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus.
As of noon Monday, anyone exhibiting any signs of illness will not be allowed to board domestic aircraft or trains, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at his Saturday COVID-19 briefing from his Rideau cottage home in Ottawa.
Canadians need to “keep it up” when it comes to physical distancing, he said, though he also conceded there are some small signs that staying apart and staying home are having a positive impact.
Meanwhile Canada’s deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo has delivered a more sobering assessment of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the fight is far from over and that it could include a second wave.
His comments come as the number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases across Canada has surged to more than 4,700 — including 55 deaths.
On Saturday, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said so far, seven per cent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada have required hospitalization, and 30 per cent of those who have been in hospital are under the age of 40.
Tam also said more cases are now being transmitted through the community, rather than being tied to travel.
Roughly 184,000 people have been tested country-wide to date.