Ontario will enter a province-wide lockdown on Christmas Eve as more than 2,300 new COVID-19 cases were reported across Ontario on Sunday and the provincial government faced increasing pressure from hospitals to implement stricter restrictions.
The timing of the looming shutdown was first reported by Global News, and confirmed to the Star by a government source.
While specific details were not immediately available, elementary and high school students will likely learn online from home following the holiday break — one week for younger students and three weeks for teens — though not in all regions of the province, education sources said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Friday his government would meet on an emergency basis with hospital executives over the weekend.
“The trends we’re seeing throughout Ontario are very, very concerning,” Ford said at the time, pledging that whatever decisions came out of the meeting would be announced publicly at 1 p.m. on Monday.
His announcement comes amid mounting concerns over a new, more infectious strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 identified in the United Kingdom, and a decision by the Canadian government to restrict flights from there.
On Sunday, two dozen hospitals from across the Greater Toronto Area backed a call from the Ontario Hospital Association to tighten restrictions in the province to alleviate the pressure of increasing cases on the health care system. Across the GTA, not only are infections rising, but so are the number of hospitalizations and patients in intensive care, they said in a statement.
“These trends show no sign of slowing — in fact, a surge in cases following the holiday season is expected to make the situation even worse,” the hospitals wrote, noting that frontline health workers were stressed and overstretched in both hospitals and long-term care.
“This level of strain is simply not sustainable for much longer. We are seeing increasing numbers of staff becoming ill and not able to work — both with COVID-19 and other illnesses ... We recognize that lockdown measures are challenging for many members of our communities, but we cannot afford to put patients and health care workers at further risk.”
Toronto is already in what the province calls the ``grey zone″ — a tier of restrictions that means hospitals and ICUs are at risk of being overwhelmed. Peel, York, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex have also been declared in the grey zone, with Hamilton’s stricter restrictions taking effect Monday.
On Wednesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory noted that he was in talks with Ford about tightening existing measures and expanding restrictions across the region. Toronto’s lockdown currently has exemptions, like keeping many big-box stores open while other businesses are required to close for in-person shopping.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie has also called for tighter restrictions to ease the pressure on hospitals, voicing support recently for a lockdown that applied across the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas.
A provincial education source told the Star on Sunday evening that while the situation could change, elementary schools in Ontario would likely now face a week of virtual learning after the holidays and that secondary schools would likely be restricted to online classes for a three-week period, but there would be regional variations.
A spokesperson for Ford’s office could not be reached for comment Sunday night.
Recent projections from the province’s science advisory table, released on Dec. 10, noted a 91.6 per cent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over the four preceding weeks, and a 165.9 per cent increase with virus patients in intensive care. With mortality in and out of long-term care continuing to rise, the modelling said daily deaths could exceed 25 within the month.
On Sunday, the province reported 25 deaths in a 24-hour period.
The advisory table noted that, out of 493 deaths among long-term care residents since Sept. 1, 102 were within seven days of their projections being released. As of Sunday, the province was reporting 154 long-term care homes in outbreak, and 21 more residents dead since Saturday.
By the Star’s count, there have been more than 4,100 deaths across the province since the pandemic hit. In the last seven days, the Star’s analysis shows an average of 28 deaths per day.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute and the University of Toronto, said the state of COVID-19 cases in the GTA especially meant that scheduled surgeries, including cancer surgeries, were being put on hold. Sustained daily case counts of more than 2,000 are too high for the medical system to handle, he said.
“Of course, we know how horrible lockdowns are. We know what the economic ramifications are. We know what the psychological ramifications are. We know what the health ramifications are. This is bad, but it’s almost the lesser of two evils, because you’re really at the brink of having your health care system fall apart, and you just can’t have that,” Bogoch said.
The situation was growing increasingly worrisome, he said. He understood the government giving a few days’ notice before enacting the sweeping lockdown, noting that people need time to prepare. But he believes the province could have acted faster with these new restrictions.
“It was clear we were heading this direction,” Bogoch told the Star on Sunday evening. “I think the writing was on the wall a bit earlier that something like this could have been done.”
With files from David Rider, Moira Welsh and the Canadian Press