TORONTO — A spike in deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic is largely tied to Ontario's nursing homes, the province reported Sunday as it continued to post massive surges in cases of the novel coronavirus.
Provincial health data showed 29 deaths provincewide in the past 24 hours, alongside 1,248 new cases of the virus. Sunday's case count, while lower than the single-day peak of 1,585 recorded a day earlier, continued the trend of daily tallies surpassing the 1,000 mark seen over the past week.
A spokeswoman for Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton confirmed that 20 of the most recent deaths took place in the province's nursing homes.
Fullerton's office issued a statement reaffirming the ministry's commitment to health and safety in the facilities, saying it is important to implement the lessons learned during the first wave of the pandemic that ravaged the homes and their residents.
“We send our deepest condolences to everyone affected – residents, their families, and staff," spokeswoman Krystle Caputo said in a statement. "We want to thank every front-line health care worker tand staff member for their ongoing dedication and support during this time."
The latest deaths come after modelling released by the province earlier this week showed that mortality rates in long-term care homes have been on the rise in the second wave of the pandemic. It also said daily case counts could eclipse 6,500 by mid-December without more stringent public health measures to curb the spread of the virus
The province said Sunday that 2,141 long-term care residents and eight staff have died of COVID-19 since March.
Fullerton's office said Sunday it is taking action to implement recommendations from both a long-term care staffing study it received in July and a commission exploring the impact the pandemic has had on long-term care homes.
Caputo said the government has moved to supply facilities with personal protective equipment and additional staff support. It is also pairing homes with local hospitals for extra assistance if needed, she added.
Health care advocates and unions have sounded the alarm in recent weeks about the situation in the long-term care system, saying a staffing crisis still exists and crucial personal protective equipment is still not always available.
The CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said the provincial government has not done enough to implement meaningful change that would head off a repeat of mistakes made during the first wave of the pandemic.
The association has called on the province to "decrowd" nursing homes, ensure essential caregivers have access to the homes, and bolster staffing immediately.
"It's not only that we have not learned from the first wave," Doris Grinspun said. "There is no sense of urgency."
Sunday's numbers come a day after one facility in Toronto reported that an outbreak there has so far sickened 136 residents and 66 workers since it began on Nov. 2.
Seven residents at Rockcliffe Care Community have died.
Rockcliffe operator Sienna Senior Living said Saturday that it's working to contain the virus's spread.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Christine Elliott said 364 of the latest cases are in Toronto, 308 in Peel Region and 125 in York Region.
Ontario is set to move Hamilton, Halton and York into the red alert level on Monday, the most restrictive level under the province's new colour-coded risk assessment system short of a full lockdown.
Peel Region and Toronto are both currently red zones and have implemented additional local public health restrictions to enhance the provincial measures.
Premier Doug Ford warned last week that the most recent modelling shows the province is "staring down the barrel of another lockdown" and said he will not hesitate to make further changes if needed.
Despite regular exhortations to follow public health protocols in order to stave off such an outcome, a police force west of Toronto said officers broke up a large gathering Saturday in Brampton, Ont.
Peel Regional Police Const. Akhil Mooken said the gathering in honour of the Hindu festival of Diwali was intended to be a drive thru event, but organizers were overwhelmed when several hundred people congregated in parking lots around the event space.
"It's disappointing," he said. "We certainly appreciate and understand that Diwali is a very special time for many in our community, but we also need to do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19."
Mooken said police and the city's bylaw enforcement officers dispersed the crowd. He could not say if any fines had been issued at the event.
Ontario said 479 people are currently hospitalized provincewide due to COVID-19, including 118 in intensive care. The province said 67 people are on ventilators.
The latest figures bring the province's total COVID-19 cases to 94,009, with 3,361 deaths, and 78,303 cases resolved.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press