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Doug Ford is under fire after delay in further COVID-19 restrictions

By leaving Ontarians in suspense on his next moves to combat “concerning” rises in COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford is delaying broader lockdowns and setti...

By leaving Ontarians in suspense on his next moves to combat “concerning” rises in COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford is delaying broader lockdowns and setting the stage for a weekend of frantic holiday shopping that could fuel the spread of the virus, critics say.

Ford teased a Monday announcement “for the balance of the province” as his government tipped only one more health unit into lockdown — Hamilton — despite calls from the Ontario Hospital Association to move 15 regions with high case levels into the top level of restrictions.

“We’re going to have an emergency meeting over the weekend,” Ford said Friday as new infections stayed above 2,000 for the fourth day in a row and the seven-day average reached a record 2,089, up 11 per cent from last Friday. There were 40 additional deaths.

“The trends we’re seeing throughout Ontario are very, very concerning.”

Niagara and Brant were moved up into the red or “control” zone of restrictions one short of lockdown starting Monday, when Hamilton will join Toronto, Peel Region, York Region and Windsor-Essex in the grey zone where only essential stores are open, gyms are closed and indoor dining is banned in bars and restaurants.

Sources said wider lockdowns are expected to be announced Monday but there are tensions within Ford’s cabinet over how far the government should go.

“There’s a lot of kickback within cabinet,” one source quoted Ford as saying on a conference call Friday with more than 100 hospital chief executives, during which the premier heard first-hand about the impact rising COVID admissions are having on capacity to perform non-emergency surgeries, including some for cancer.

Medical experts and opposition parties fear delaying stricter measures will result in more spread of the virus during the biggest shopping week of the year heading into Christmas Day.

“It’s not great,” said Todd Coleman, a Wilfrid Laurier University epidemiologist and former public health official in Middlesex-London.

“We just keep adding to the probability of infection. We’re seeing people piling on top of each other in retail spaces.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory and Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie had called on the province to push the entire GTA into lockdown to stop trips to Durham and Halton regions for shopping, haircuts and dinners out that can increase transmission of COVID-19.

“We know people are travelling and region-hopping,” said Crombie.

Critics said the lack of detail about what to expect Monday will fuel more such trips, which are being discouraged by public health officials, along with panic shopping for holiday gifts and food this weekend as consumers fear closures or longer lineups to come.

“The longer that Ford waits ... the more out-of-control this pandemic gets,” New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath told reporters.

The Ontario Hospital Association, which urged the province to “immediately” put health units with more than 40 cases per 10,000 people into lockdown to prevent even larger daily case numbers potentially into the thousands per day, said it hopes the Ford government is listening as numbers of COVID-19 patients threaten to top first wave levels.

“Should stricter measures not be put in place, and should the public not heed public health advice and choose to gather over the holiday season, the consequences risk overwhelming Ontario’s hospitals,” the OHA said in a statement.

“Every health-care system has its breaking point.”

COVID-19 has gained speed rapidly in Ontario since new cases dropped below 100 a day in mid-August. The daily new case count hit a high of 2,432 on Thursday before dipping slightly to 2,290 on Friday and the number of active cases diagnosed in the last two weeks is at a record 17,742 people.

Infection levels have climbed throughout the fall despite increased restrictions, which medical groups, doctors and epidemiologists outside the government have repeatedly criticized as not aggressive enough.

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“The trend just continues to grow, no matter what we’re doing,” Ford lamented at a news conference Thursday.

On Friday, York Region pointed to just one example at what can happen at gatherings of people from several households after a birthday party attended by 22 people in a private residence Dec. 6 resulted in at least 11 cases of COVID-19 in people aged 3 to 54.

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Meanwhile, Ontario announced 17 additional hospital sites where COVID-19 shots will be given to health-care workers as about 90,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrive before the end of the year.

They are Sunnybrook, Humber River, Toronto East Health Network, William Osler, Scarborough, Southlake, Mackenzie Health, Halton Healthcare, Unity Health, Lakeridge, Trillium, Hamilton Health Sciences, Grand River Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre, Royal Victoria in Barrie, Windsor Regional Hospital and Thunder Bay.

This week, University Health Network in Toronto and the Ottawa Hospital have administered 2,300 shots.

More hospitals will be providing vaccinations in the new year, the government said.

Rob Ferguson

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