COVID-19: Ontario urges businesses to produce medical items in short supply

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he is urging manufacturing companies to retool their businesses with the aim of producing medical equipment in short supply.

On Saturday, Ford announced the creation of a new Ontario government website, Ontario Together, and a dedicated team that will help companies work with the province to address medical shortages amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We are ready to mobilize Ontario's manufacturing might," Ford told reporters through a teleconference at Queen's Park. Journalists were not allowed in the room.

"We are going to start that engine. We are going to go full steam ahead."

The website will identify items in short supply in the province and solicit ideas from businesses about what they are able to produce. Through the website, companies can submit proposals for the government, Ford said.

According to Ford, the website will remove barriers in the manufacturing sector to enable companies to produce essential equipment, including ventilators, face masks, surgical gowns, swabs, protective eye-wear, medical gloves and hand sanitizers for health care workers.

He said any firm that can produce these items should reach out to the government.

"Right now our front line health care workers are running out of key items," he said. "My message to business owners in Ontario is this. If you can re-tool your business to make these products, if you can supply these essential items, we need to hear from you right now."

The premier said Ontario needs to produce its own medical items required by hospitals and not rely on business outside of its jurisdiction. 

"We want manufacturing here in Ontario. We have the capabilities. I can't rely on the rest of the world right now, 100 per cent. We have the equipment. We have the manufacturing capability. There is nothing we can't build. We'll get that engine going."

About 3,500 people have used the interactive self-assessment tool developed by the province to see if they had symptoms of the virus, Ford added.

Ontario reports 59 new cases, bringing total to 377

Ford spoke after the Ontario health ministry reported 59 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, bringing the provincial total to 377.

One new case has been resolved, the ministry said on its special COVID-19 website. Previously, it reported that two patients in the province have died.

A total of 7,239 cases are under investigation. The ministry says 15,768 people have tested negative for the virus.

At least two of the new cases involve people from Toronto: a man in his 50s who travelled to Germany, and a man in his 60s who travelled to Europe. 

Peel and York regions have at least four new cases each, while Durham Region has at least one new case. Details about the majority of cases reported on Saturday are listed as "pending."

Later, another COVID-19 related death was announced, bringing the total number of deaths in the province to three.

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit confirmed the death of a man in his 70s on Saturday who was being treated for COVID-19 in a Barrie, Ont. hospital.

He had come in close contact with a man in his 70s whose death is also under investigation as related to COVID-19, the first in Ontario recorded earlier this month.

Evan Mitsui/CBC

Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said he was not surprised to see the rise in numbers Saturday and added that the province continues to work to increase its ability to test people for the virus.

Williams said the next few weeks will be important to limiting the spread of COVID-19, stressing that everyone returning to Canada must go into isolation for 14 days to stop the virus.

"We are expecting them to do so regardless of age and where you have come from," he said. "Everyone knows what the plan is. We just need to do it and do it well."

Meanwhile, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is asking the doctors and pharmacists not to refill prescriptions with more than a 30 day supply to prevent drug shortages during the pandemic.

Elliott said the government is making the request in response to pharmacists who say some patients have been requesting refills of up to six months.

The government said doctors and pharmacists will be allowed to use their own discretion if they believe a patient requires more than a 30-day supply.

 "We want to make sure that everyone can have access to the medications they need," she said. "We are looking at 30-day refills just to make sure that supply will remain available for everyone."

Evan Mitsui/CBC

Faith leaders urged to cancel services

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, has written to faith community leaders urging them to cancel services.

"At this time, we are asking people to stay home to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, and if they have to go out we are asking that they carefully follow our social distancing recommendations," de Villa wrote. 

"This includes staying two metres (six feet) from others at all times. In many faith-based settings, it will not be practical to accommodate this social distancing measure. If you cannot meet the social distancing recommendations, please cancel your services."

Hospitals begin to ban visitors

Toronto's University Health Network, meanwhile, will no longer allow visitors to its hospitals as of Saturday due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Exceptions will be made on compassionate grounds and for special safety needs, the UHN said in a message on its website on Saturday.

David Donnelly/CBC

"It is an extremely difficult decision we are making across Ontario's hospitals, but we are doing this to protect the safety of patients and health care workers," the UHN said.

"Screening is in effect at all hospital doors. Some of our entrances may be closed or have reduced access."

The network includes Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

Other hospitals in Toronto have already banned visitors in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Humber River Hospital, for example, stopped accepting visitors on Friday at 7 p.m. at its three sites and reactivation care centres. 

"There will be limited exceptions including patients who are at end-of-life, critically ill, pediatric patients, patients receiving surgery, or women in the birthing suites," the hospital said on its website.

"We will actively screen all visitors who are the exception and they will be required to sign-in once they arrive on the unit."

Toronto case involves person in shelter system

On Friday, Toronto said it had 161 cases of the virus, with 10 patients in hospital.

At least one of the Toronto cases involves a person experiencing homelessness.

Evan Mitsui/CBC

Matthew Pegg, Toronto Fire Chief and head of the the city's emergency response team, said on Friday that the city has created an "isolation centre" so that people without homes can safely stay away from others while waiting for test results.

Pegg said the city has also booked hotel rooms that people who typically use the shelter system can stay in if they need to self-isolate for 14 days.

He said those exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 won't be allowed to enter shelters, and will instead be referred to an assessment centre.