TORONTO — Ontario is expected to announce a 28-day provincewide "shutdown" Thursday to stop the spread of COVID-19 as an alarming spike in cases threatens the critical care system, The Canadian Press has learned.
A source with knowledge of the restrictions discussed at a cabinet meeting Wednesday night said the final details of the new measures will be worked out Thursday morning.
The source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the announcement, said schools will remain open after the Easter weekend.
Premier Doug Ford urged Ontarians earlier this week to stay home and not make plans for the Easter long weekend in anticipation of the new rules.
Ontario reported 2,333 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 15 more deaths linked to the virus.
Those figures follow weeks of rising case counts as more contagious variants of the virus spread across the province.
The province also hit a new high Wednesday for the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units. Critical Care Services Ontario counted 421 hospital patients with COVID-related critical illness as of midnight.
Ford urged people to be "vigilant" in light of those figures.
"Don't gather in large groups," he said. "Follow the protocols of the chief medical officer and we'll be able to get through this and we'll be able to get more vaccines into people's arms."
Health Minister Christine Elliott said "everything is on the table" as the government contemplates more public health restrictions – repeating a phrase used by Ford earlier this week.
During the Wednesday night meeting, cabinet was to consult with the province's top doctor and look at new COVID-19 projections, Elliott said earlier in the day.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government hasn't done enough to prevent people from getting severely ill as the third wave has taken hold.
She said she expects the government to announce a new lockdown on Thursday, but said the province should be taking action immediately.
"I don't know why we're waiting for the cabinet to have a conversation about politics versus public health," she said.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner also urged the government to act.
"We need to ensure our hospitals and (public health units) have the resources they need," he said in a statement.
"We also need a comprehensive safe workplace strategy for essential workers like those working in warehouses and grocery stores that includes receiving vaccines sooner."
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the province needs to impose a "circuit-breaker" that halts spread of the virus as soon as possible.
"We've seen this really horrible movie before," he said. "We saw it before Christmas ... we've seen repeated dithering, we've seen repeated delays."
The head of the Ontario Medical Association said Wednesday that it was recommending every public health unit move back one stage in the province's colour-coded pandemic framework, and that restrictions stay in place until there are fewer than 1,000 new cases each day.
Dr. Samantha Hill, president of the association, said the most recent pandemic numbers are "quite scary." She said more young people are becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 and are staying in hospitals longer, putting further pressure on on the health-care system.
"We are going to see more ICU use than we have with the first two waves, and that means that we're going to have less ICU resources available, less hospital resources available," she said. "We really do need to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we stamp down the spread of the virus."
Jean-Paul Soucy, a University of Toronto PhD student who studies infectious disease epidemiology, said he believes Ontario will need to roll back recently announced indoor dining and gym reopenings, and impose regional rules to keep public health measures uniform in the Greater Toronto Area.
"I do think what's necessary is a pullback of reopening, as well as the kind of targeted economic supports for reducing workplace transmission and the transfer of the virus from workplaces into homes," he said.
"The vaccine rollout must continue to be targeted towards the high transmission neighborhoods, especially because there's more essential workers there," he added.
Soucy said on top of telling people what they shouldn't do, the province should also clearly explain what is safe to do.
"Spending time outdoors is something that people can do that's really not going to appreciably increase our risk," he said.
Meanwhile, several school boards have instructed parents to ask their children to bring materials home ahead of this Easter weekend in case learning is shifted online
Both the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and the Thames Valley District School Board in London, have sent notices to families in recent days, saying while nothing is planned, they want to ensure parents are prepared if the province indicates a shift is required.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press