Private social gatherings have been leading the way when it comes to new COVID-19 cases in the parts of Ontario where the virus is spreading most actively, but there are no plans yet to reduce the 50-person limit on indoor gatherings, the province's top doctor says.
At a news conference Thursday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams acknowledged "there's some confusion" amongst the public when it comes to gatherings.
While the current regulations do allow gatherings of up to 50 people in indoor settings and 100 people outdoors, Williams reiterated public health measures, including physical distancing, still apply where people are not part of each other's social circles.
"It doesn't mean you just go and randomly carry on with everyone," said Williams.
"You can't do that."
In addition to social and family gatherings, Williams said, there are also instances of workplace outbreaks. The province hasn't seen outbreaks related to bars and restaurants, he said, adding owners and customers have been following public-health advice and taking the right precautions.
As for whether he would consider further restricting the number of people allowed at social gatherings, Williams said ultimately what's most important is observing public-health measures.
"We don't think we have to punish" retailers who are trying to work within the rules, Williams said, adding the provincial guidelines have to "balance" various considerations.
New cases largely concentrated in Greater Toronto Area
Ontario reported an additional 170 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, concentrated mainly in the Greater Toronto Area.
The slight increase over the 149 new cases seen in Wednesday's update was accompanied by a bounce back in testing levels, with 24,699 test samples for the novel coronavirus processed by the province's network of labs.
Toronto confirmed the most new cases, with 55. York Region saw 28 and Peel Region 22. Ottawa reported another 12 confirmed infections.
Further, 28 of Ontario's 34 public health units reported five or fewer cases, and 14 of those 28 saw none, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott.
There have now been 43, 855 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ontario since the outbreak began in late January. Of those, about 90 per cent are resolved. Another 142 were marked resolved in today's update.
There are currently around 1,567 confirmed, active cases provincewide.
After four straight days with no additional deaths, Ontario's official COVID-19 death toll grew by one yesterday and now sits at 2,814. A CBC News count based on data provided by public health units, however, puts the actual toll at 2,856.
The number of patients in Ontario hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 remained relatively steady at 54. Fourteen are being treated in intensive care, and nine of those are on ventilators.
Ford may ask surgeons to work weekends to clear backlog
Meanwhile, Ontario's surgeons may be asked to start working weekends to clear a major backlog of procedures delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province's premier said Thursday as he pledged funding to help tackle the issue.
Doug Ford's comments came nine days after modelling research painted a stark picture of surgery wait times across the province.
The data, published earlier this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, suggested more than 148,000 procedures were postponed between mid-March, when elective operations were cancelled due to the lockdown, and May, when those restrictions eased.
Researchers estimated the backlog would take at least a year and a half to clear.
Ford pegged the backlog at more than 180,000 on Thursday as he said government officials are working on solutions to address the issue.
The proposal came as news to Willliams, the province's top doctor, who declined to comment on the idea but said the health command table co-ordinating much of the province's pandemic response is discussing ways to address the backlog.
Ministry of Health spokesperson Travis Kann said a "fall preparedness plan" that's in development will contain unspecified measures to address the surgery waitlist, adding details would be released in the coming weeks.
The modelling research, published on Sept. 1, did not account for additional physician hours in its projections. But the data suggested the wait list could be eliminated in 84 weeks if practitioners hit a target of 717 procedures a week.
Its authors said the data could play an important role in health planning.
"The magnitude of the surgical backlog from COVID-19 raises important implications for planning for the recovery phase and for possible second waves of the pandemic in Ontario," study co-author Dr. Jonathan Irish, a surgeon at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, said when the research was published.
The researchers argued health systems "cannot go back to business as usual" if they want to manage the impact on patients, and must find innovative solutions to prepare for future waves of the novel coronavirus.
Ford did not indicate how much money the government has earmarked to cover the cost of additional surgeon hours or operating room time, simply saying "the funds are there."
NDP health-care critic France Gelinas argued that finances, rather than working hours, will be the key to addressing the backlog.
She said doctors and other medical professionals already work weekends and other statutory holidays, calling the idea of asking them to put in additional time "disrespectful."
The problem, she said, lies with underfunded hospitals that are unable to cover the cost of additional operating room time or provide enough patient beds.
Ottawa failing to enforce quarantine orders, premier says
Ford said Thursday the quarantine system is "broken" because federal health officers are not charging people ignoring self-isolation orders for COVID-19.
Since the end of March, an emergency order under the federal Quarantine Act has required most people arriving from outside Canada to isolate themselves for 14 days, even if they don't have symptoms.
WATCH | Canada's Quarantine Act 'broken,' Ford says:
Federal quarantine officers can lay charges with penalties of up to six months in jail and fines of $750,000, while police can issue tickets of up to $1,000.
Federal health officials say nobody has been arrested for ignoring a quarantine order, though one person was issued a summons to appear in court and 42 people have been ticketed by police.
Ford says Ontario police checks have uncovered 622 quarantine order scofflaws and is frustrated about the lack of federal charges.
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu says the rules are clear and there are enforcement procedures in place for those who break them.
Ford cautions against sending kids out on Halloween
Ford also said Thursday he would prefer parents not take their children trick or treating this Halloween as the province struggles to keep its COVID-19 case numbers under control.
Ford says the idea of children going door-to-door this year for Halloween as the pandemic continues makes him "nervous".
The premier says while it is still a month and a half away, he will want to discuss the issue with the province's health experts.
Ford says he is concerned because it is difficult to say where the province's virus case count will be by the end of October.