TORONTO — Ontario is considering new measures to curb rapidly rising COVID-19 cases, Premier Doug Ford said Thursday as hospitals, doctors and nurses called for stricter lockdowns in hard-hit regions.
Ford said he was particularly concerned about surging infections in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area but provided few specifics on measures being considered other than to say a curfew wasn't one of them.
"There's a wide variety of items (and) discussions going on over the last couple days, matter of fact, they're going on constantly," he told reporters. "But there's a lot of things to consider. The worst thing we could do is rush out there and make a snap decision in a heartbeat."
The premier's comments came shortly after the province reported a record 2,432 new cases of COVID-19 and 23 new deaths due to the virus.
In total, 919 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 263 in intensive care. The government said 172 of those people are on ventilators.
The province's hospitals said the government needed to implement a four-week lockdown in every public health unit with 40 or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.
That would mean 11 public health units – including the hot spots of Toronto and Peel Region, as well as Simcoe Muskoka and Middlesex-London – would be affected.
The Ontario Hospital Association said the province's current lockdown restrictions should be "rapidly" reassessed by independent experts to determine if additional measures are required.
"The situation is extremely serious," it said.
"We are now in the holiday season and if members of the public choose to ignore public health measures and gather outside their households, the consequences risk overwhelming Ontario’s hospitals. Every health-care system has its breaking point."
The association also said the province should offer paid sick leave and isolation accommodation to help those who cannot afford to take time off work if they contract the virus.
Ontario's doctors also called for more restrictions.
The Ontario Medical Association asked the government to impose a lockdown of the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton area until after New Year's.
"We're seeing a lot of transmission across regions," Dr. Samantha Hill, president of association, said.
"Some of it is because essential workers must go to their jobs in the health-care, transportation and food production industries. Unfortunately, some of it is also people crossing into areas with looser restrictions for non-essential reasons such as shopping, hair cuts and social visits."
The CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said the measures the government has implemented thus far need to be bolstered to truly halt virus spread.
Doris Grinspun said the province needs to impose stricter measures, including prohibiting people from travelling between lockdown zones.
"What's the rationale for not doing more?" Grinspun asked.
Toronto, Peel and York regions, and Windsor-Essex are currently in the lockdown category of the province's pandemic framework. The lockdowns in Toronto and Peel are currently set to lift next week.
Ford said he is aware of the serious capacity issues hospitals are facing right now, and how they are now resulting in cancelled surgeries.
He said his government needs to weigh how further lockdowns could affect a number of sectors before any new restrictions are implemented, but pledged further supports for small business.
Ontario's chief medical officer of health said the province's COVID-19 case load is headed in the wrong direction and he's made new recommendations for Ford's cabinet to consider.
"The issue is not just within a few (regions)," said Dr. David Williams. "We have some wider issues, so it's not just what we need to do in the GTHA, but what do you have to ... turn things around?"
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government did not prepare for the second wave of the pandemic and should consider further lockdowns.
"Doug Ford chose not to invest in stronger public health measures," she said. "And now we’re facing a longer, deeper and darker lockdown as a result."
Meanwhile, the province introduced a promised staffing strategy for its long-term care homes on Thursday, pledging to hire 27,000 personal support workers, registered nurses, and registered practical nurses.
The government said the plan will take four years to implement and it will cost $1.9 billion by 2024-2025.
Last month, Ontario promised to provide an average standard of four hours of daily care per nursing home resident, but acknowledged it would take years to hire the staff required to attain the benchmark.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario's secretary-treasurer said while the strategy is a good first step, it must also address low wages, heavy workload, and a lack of full-time work in the sector.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press