Peel Region only one in COVID-19 red zone as Ontario switches to colour-coded system

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TORONTO — Peel Region will be under the highest COVID-19 alert level short of a lockdown as Ontario shifts to a tiered and colour-coded system for managing pandemic measures, though the restrictions it will face fall short of what local health officials deemed necessary to curb rising case counts.

The provincial government released a list Friday classifying each public health unit under the new red, orange, yellow and green risk level system -- a change that will take effect at midnight.

The move came as heightened restrictions were set to expire in three hot spots, including Peel Region, which will now be labelled a red zone.

“The numbers that we’re seeing in Peel, and specifically Brampton, they’re just going through the roof," Premier Doug Ford said in announcing the decision. 

"It’s out of control right now and we have to react."

The province pointed to Peel's positivity rate which, at 11 per cent, is significantly higher than the 2.5 per cent or less officials are seeking. It said the local health-care system is also feeling pressure as a result of the spike in COVID-19 cases.

The region accounted for 280 of the 1,003 new cases reported across Ontario on Friday.

Peel's medical officer of health said he wrote a letter to his provincial counterpart on Thursday asking that the region remain under a modified Stage 2 -- the restriction classification system previously used by the government -- which involves more stringent rules such as a ban on indoor dining in restaurants and bars.

Since the province instead opted for the less strict red zone protocols, Dr. Lawrence Loh said he will be bringing in additional local measures "designed to target other drivers of transmission" such as social gatherings and workplaces, as well as guidelines for the settings that will now be allowed to reopen.

He also urged residents in Peel to "ignore the noise around what's open and what's closed" and keep their interactions with others to an "absolute minimum" for at least the next four weeks.

"The safest thing they can do right now for themselves, their family and loved ones and their community is to make sure that they are limiting their close contact to their immediate household, and any essential supports that they rely on for day to day physical or emotional care," he said.

Ford acknowledged that health officials in Peel had requested a different course of action but called the switch to the red zone a "happy compromise," saying he also had to take into account requests from local mayors and other stakeholders.

Another of the hot spots, Toronto, will remain under a modified Stage 2 for a week at the request of the mayor and local health officials.

Opposition legislators criticized the move to loosen restrictions in Peel, accusing the premier of making reckless decisions.

NDP legislator Gurratan Singh, who represents the Peel Region riding of Brampton East, said in a statement that Ford is "determined to ignore all the red flags."

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the premier's plan for managing COVID-19 measures wasn't properly thought through. "We are starting to see the consequences of his half-baked plan more and more each day," he said in a statement.

The new system was announced earlier this week in an effort to fight the pandemic in a more targeted manner.

It places health units in colour-coded categories depending on their caseload and transmission levels.

Regions in the red category will, among other things, have indoor restaurant dining limited to 10 people and have gyms limited to 10 people indoors. 

Two other hot spots, Ottawa and York Region, will be moved to the orange level, which limits bars and restaurants to 50 people indoors, with no more than four seated together. Those businesses must also close by 10 p.m., while other venues such as strip clubs must shut down altogether.

York reported 125 new cases on Friday, and Toronto, 280.

The province said it has conducted 41,268 tests since the last daily report, and has a backlog of 47,074 tests.

In total, 380 people are hospitalized in Ontario due to COVID-19, including 86 in intensive care.

The province also reported 85 new COVID-19 cases related to schools, including at least 49 among students. Those bring the number of schools with a reported case to 582 out of Ontario's 4,828 publicly funded schools.

Toronto's top public health doctor said the pandemic has also exacerbated the already deadly overdose crisis playing out across the city, flagging a significant increase in overdoses since March compared with the same period in previous years.

In a new report, Dr. Eileen de Villa said 132 people died due to a suspected opioid overdose between April 1 and Sept. 30 of this year, nearly double the number for the same stretch last year and in 2018.

She called for urgent steps to be taken, including increased access to harm-reduction programs, piloting virtual or phone-based supervised consumption services, and a commitment to decriminalizing possession of all drugs for personal use.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published November 6, 2020.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press