‘Alarm bells are ringing louder’ as Ontario sees record-high 797 new COVID-19 cases: top doctor

“Alarm bells are ringing louder and louder” as the number of new COVID-19 cases in Ontario grows increasingly higher, Ontario’s top doctor warns.

At a news conference Thursday, Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, told reporters there was growing cause for concern over the rise in novel coronavirus cases and to “stay tuned” about possible new public health measures as cases rise and positivity rates go up. 

What those additional public health measures might look like and when they could take effect, Williams wouldn’t say.

“When the time is right, I’m sure the minister and premier will be forthcoming,” he said.

Asked specifically if he’s recommended closing indoor dining, Williams didn’t answer directly, saying only that he had made recommendations from the province’s public health table, which are “up to cabinet for their consideration.”

With the Thanksgiving long weekend approaching, Williams focused on the need for Ontarians to take the advice of public health officials seriously: avoiding gatherings, observing physical distancing and mask wearing.

The average age associated with COVID-19 outbreaks is growing younger, but the novel coronavirus is also spiking again in vulnerable populations, he said.

The positivity rate during this second wave is up to 2.1 per cent on average, he said, but is closer to three per cent in Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa. Outside of those hotspots, cases are also rising in the regions of Halton, York, Durham and Simcoe.

‘It’s just the start of the curve rising up’

The number of people in Ontario hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 continued its steady climb upward, up to 206 from 195. Of those, 47 are being treated in intensive care units, while 29 are on ventilators.

“Some will say those are still small numbers,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s just the start of the curve rising up.”    

Also rising is the number of outbreaks the province is facing, totalling 112 on Thursday — almost double what it was two weeks ago, with more cases in vulnerable sectors and in schools.

Those outbreaks aren’t just occurring in hotspot regions, but also in areas like Muskoka, Niagara, Waterloo and eastern Ontario, Williams said. 

Contact tracing is also growing more challenging as people are apparently ignoring advice to limit their social circles, Williams said, with the number of close contacts as high as 50 to 100 in a single week. Tracing was easier when Ontario was under lockdown, he acknowledged, expressing frustration that some people are engaging in such risky behaviour.

“I don’t understand that. Why would you have that kind of thing? What don’t you understand about our messaging?” asked a visibly exasperated Williams.

Many experts have criticized the Ontario government’s COVID-19 messaging in recent weeks as confusing and contradictory information, arguing it’s leading to some public distrust of the province’s advice.

However, while many doctors and other health professionals have advocated for a return to a version of Stage 2 of the province’s reopening plan, the Ford government has stopped short of rolling back its reopening thus far, saying any such measures would be taken on a targeted basis. 

Asked Thursday if he bore any responsibility for the growing number of cases and for not taking quicker action on the recommendations for stricter measures, Williams replied: “The public health measures are measures that we put in place sometimes when people aren’t doing their public health measures.”

Ontario reported 797 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, the most on any single day since the outbreak began, while the province’s labs processed 48,488 tests — also a single-day record. 

As has been the case in recent months, most of the new cases are concentrated in four public health units:

  • Toronto: 265
  • Ottawa: 182
  • Peel Region: 134
  • York Region: 78

Other areas that saw double-digit increases include:

  • Halton Region: 33
  • Simcoe-Muskoka: 24
  • Durham Region: 22
  • Hamilton: 11
  • Middlesex-London: 11
  • Waterloo Region: 10

About 57 per cent of the newly confirmed infections are in people under 40 years old, Health Minister Christine Elliott said in a tweet. Further, 100 of today’s cases are school-related, including 51 students, 22 staff and 27 people categorized as “individuals not identified.”

A total of 415 of Ontario’s 4,828 publicly-funded schools, or about 8.6 per cent, have now reported at least one case of COVID-19 in either students or staff.

The testing record comes as the province pushes toward its goal of processing 50,000 tests daily by the middle of October, and more than 75,000 per day by mid-November.  The backlog of tests waiting to be completed currently sits at 58,118.

Ontario recently announced it would end testing for asymptomatic people at its 153 COVID-19 assessment centres, instead moving to an appointment-only model for those with symptoms of the disease. The decision was made, in part, to help labs clear the backlog of test samples, which at its highest grew to more than 92,000.

Health experts have cautioned the change could result in artificially deflated new daily case numbers this week

Meanwhile, outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in long-term care facilities continue, with 57 currently being tracked by public health officials, four more than just yesterday. 

Ontario’s official COVID-19 death also increased yesterday, up four to 2,992.

The province has now seen a total of 56,742 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since late January. About 85.1 per cent are considered resolved. Another 695 cases were marked resolved in today’s provincial report.

There are currently some 5,442 confirmed, actives cases of the illness provincewide, an increase of 98 over yesterday. About 74 per cent of those are in the Greater Toronto Area. 

The developments come as provincial officials ask Ontarians to spend the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday with only people in their own household.

“I know it’s tough on everyone,” Premier Doug Ford said on Wednesday. “We’re all going to make sacrifices to stop the spread of COVID-19.”

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