Healthcare

Reversing course, Ford says he is now considering regional reopening of Ontario

Ontario Premier Doug Ford repeatedly said he would not consider a regional reopening of the province. On Friday, however, he said the situation is ‘fluid’ and that he’s asked public health experts about the possibility. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he’s considering a regional, phased approach to reopening the province amid the COVID-19 pandemic — an option he had previously resisted.

“Everything is on the table,” Ford said at his daily briefing on Friday. “It’s an option that we are looking at. I know other jurisdictions have done this. I want to know how this has gone in other areas, what lessons we can learn.”

Ford said the province’s expanded testing guidelines, released this morning, will help public health officials better understand trends and hot spots.

“Now that our testing is getting to where we need it, I am now comfortable with asking our officials to look at a regional approach for a staged reopening.”

Ford has previously said he wouldn’t consider a regional reopening, opting instead for a blanket policy despite considerable differences in the number of active cases in various parts of the province. For example, a CBC News analysis found that the per capita rate of active cases is four times higher in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area than elsewhere in Ontario.

Ford cautioned that an ultimate decision will be based on advice from public health officials.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said a regional approach presents challenges with public messaging and how to safely delineate various regions. 

344 new cases

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 344 additional cases of COVID-19 on Friday and said it surpassed its testing benchmark for a second straight day.

The news comes as the province revealed its new testing strategy will focus on communities with relatively high numbers of cases and certain high-risk workplaces while also boosting Ontario’s contact-tracing work. (You can read the full provincial strategy at the bottom of this story.)

The new cases bring the total in the province since the COVID-19 outbreak began in January to 27,210. Slightly more than 77 per cent of those cases are now resolved.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s network of labs processed 18,525 tests yesterday, the most since May 15. The current daily target is 16,000, though the system has the capacity to handle more than 20,000 on any given day.

The backlog of samples waiting to be processed grew to 13,351, meaning more than 20,000 tests were added to the queue yesterday. 

The overall number of patients in Ontario hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 fell again — down seven to 826 — and remained at its lowest level seen in about a month.

The death toll from COVID-19 currently sits at 2,275, according to data compiled by CBC News. About 78.5 per cent of all deaths in the province were residents in long-term care homes.

Pop-up testing centres

Ontario’s Ministry of Health is helping to run pop-up COVID-19 assessment centres in one of the province’s hardest-hit areas.

In a news release issued Friday morning, the Scarborough Health Network said it is working in conjunction with the ministry and Toronto Public Health to operate the first of the pop-up facilities at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, in the northeastern part of the city.

Officials are encouraging anyone in those communities who thinks they may have been infected with the novel coronavirus, even if they are asymptomatic, to get tested.

Front-line health-care staff conduct drive-thru COVID-19 testing at a specially built facility near Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC).

The assessment centre will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET today. Two more days of pop-up testing are scheduled in Scarborough thus far, though the ministry says there will be a total of days at five different locations.

The next is scheduled for June 1 at the Westminster Presbyterian Church, while a third will be held at Global Kingdom Ministries on June 2.

North Scarborough is among the three areas of Toronto with the most COVID-19 cases, according to data released by Toronto Public Health earlier this week. Northern Etobicoke and parts of North York also have a high number of cases. All three areas are home to relatively low-income neighbourhoods with dense multi-unit residences.

The pop-up assessment centres are part of the province’s updated testing strategy, which is set to ramp up in earnest next week. 

Expanded testing strategy

The revised plan was detailed by public health officials at a technical briefing for media this morning. It aligns closely with what Ford has hinted at over the past several weeks. 

The strategy includes a directive, outlined in a memo from the Ministry of Health last weekend, that anyone who is concerned they may have COVID-19 is not to be refused a test at any of the province’s 131 assessment centres.

There will be “targeted campaigns” aimed at testing employees in key sectors identified by the province, including the agri-food, auto and retail industries. Officials are working with individual employers to put those campaigns in motion in the coming weeks. 

Ontario will also establish mobile testing units — buses or vans equipped with supplies and staffed by health-care workers — that could be used to test those living in particularly hard-hit communities.

There are currently more than 20 public, commercial and hospital labs processing testing samples. The revised strategy does not include any new targets for daily capacity, because the situation is too fluid to provide an accurate benchmark, officials said.

Some infectious disease experts have been critical of the province’s messaging on testing, saying it has thus far left room for confusion about who actually qualifies for an assessment.

The province has failed to reach its daily testing target more than half the time in May. Levels dropped sharply once a blitz of nearly all long-term care residents and staff was completed over the long weekend, but they have picked up again in recent days after Ontario relaxed criteria for members of the public to be tested.

Public health officials have said that ramping up testing in the general public will be essential as Ontario looks to further loosen restrictions put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

You can read the province’s presentation on its updated testing strategy below:

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