Health minister says test result wait times 'not acceptable' as Ontario confirms 25 new COVID-19 cases
Porter Airlines suspending flights, Canada-U.S. border closed, several students asked to vacate residences
Wait times for COVID-19 test results can be as long as four days for some people in Ontario — a reality Health Minister Christine Elliott said was "not acceptable," as the province contended with 25 new confirmed cases of the virus on Wednesday.
"It indicates that there are more and more people coming forward to be tested," Elliott said at a news conference, adding her office was "very aware of the need to increase our capacity for testing."
"We're working on that diligently right now," she insisted.
Ontario now has 214 confirmed cases of the virus, with the number of cases under investigation doubling — up from 1,567 on Tuesday to 3,378. The tally now includes one death. Five other cases are considered resolved.
At a news conference Wednesday, Ontario's medical officers of health said over 10,000 people across the province have so far tested negative for the virus.
The increase in cases comes one day after Premier Doug Ford declared state of emergency in Ontario.
"The good news is the lab capacity is going up," said the associate medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe.
Yaffe said Public Health Ontario's laboratory has increased it capacity, and additional hospital labs will soon be up and running, allowing the province to conduct 5,000 tests a day. Ontario currently is able to do about 2,000 tests per day, Ford said.
Of the 214 cases confirmed so far, Yaffe said the majority continue to be travel-related or close contact with a case. However there are a small number of cases that don't appear to fall into either category.
'Service interruption' halts Telehealth temporarily
Technical issues caused a "service interruption" at Ontario's medical information line, Telehealth, with callers instead asked to contact their local public health units, as the total number of confirmed cases across the province hit 212 on Wednesday.
Earlier Wednesday, the website for Ontario's Telehealth system alerted users of a service interruption. Anyone needing immediate support was asked to contact their local health unit instead.
Elliott said that an additional 300 lines added to Telehealth may be the reason the system crashed.
"We are actively working with the provider to remedy the situation," Elliott said adding she expects it to be "up and running again very soon."
Telehealth has been inundated with calls since mid-January as concern grows around the potential spread of the virus.
Healthcare workers coming from abroad told to self-isolate
Elliott also clarified that frontline medical workers must self-isolate if returning for travel, after reports that some had been told otherwise.
"We want to keep everyone safe and healthy, so we'll require the health care workers to do the same as anyone else," Elliott said.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams admitted on Wednesday that different hospitals were told different things, but the aim now is to get out a more consistent message that all healthcare workers who have travelled need to self-isolate.
"We need to put out a communication that everyone does the same thing," Williams said.
Ford considers limit for consumers
On the issue of panic-buying, Premier Ford said at a news conference shoppers who have been stockpiling items like toilet paper and pasta could be eventually be forced to limit the number of items they can buy at one time.
Ford said it would ultimately be up to the retailers, but he would be open to a discussion about putting a limit on certain items.
"You know how they have a sale, you can only buy two? Maybe I think we should start doing that with healthcare items," Ford said.
"Nothing seems to panic people more than going into a retail store and shelves are empty. I still can't get my head around this toilet paper situation," he said.
The Beer Store reducing hours
Meanwhile, The Beer Store is reducing its hours at stores across the province starting on Thursday.
Stores will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Monday through Saturday. Sunday hours will remain unchanged, and stores that already operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. will be unaffected.
Customers looking to bring back empty bottles for a refund will also have to wait until at least March 31 as that program is put on pause.
"Deposits will be fully honoured upon return when we resume operations," a release sent out on Wednesday said.
The Beer Store will also be limiting the number of people allowed in stores at one time.
The change comes one day after the LCBO announced it was reducing its hours, saying stores would only operate from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Queen's Park to hold emergency sitting
Also Wednesday, the Ontario Government House Leader called an emergency sitting of the legislature for Thursday at 1 p.m. Two new pieces of emergency legislation are expected to be introduced in response to COVID-19, according to a statement from the province.
During the meeting, the number of members allowed in the chamber will be restricted to 24 in accordance with social distancing practices. Those will include the speaker, 12 members from the Ford government, eight members of NDP — the official opposition, two Liberal members and one member from the Green Party. They will be allowed to sit at any desk that allows the appropriate space of two metres between each member.
After tomorrow's meeting, the legislature will be suspended until March 25.
Canada - U.S. border closure
Meanwhile, Canada and the United States have reached an unprecedented deal to close the shared border to non-essential travel, as both countries try to restrict the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a news conference at which he said travellers will no longer be able to cross the border for recreational and tourism purposes.
"These measures will last in place as long as we feel they need to last," he told reporters from outside his home at Rideau Cottage, on the grounds of Rideau Hall in Ottawa, where he's in self-isolation.
"In both our countries, we're encouraging people to stay home. We're telling our citizens not to visit their neighbours if they don't absolutely have to."
The Prime Minister's Office said they are still negotiating the start date and will have it "soon."
Trudeau said both sides agreed to preserve supply chains, which ensure that food, fuel and life-saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border.
In a series of tweets, Ford said he welcomed the move, calling it "tough but necessary."
"Goods and trade will continue to flow between Ontario and the United States. It's vitally important we keep our supply chain intact," the premier continued.
Thank you to all the truckers working around the clock to fill our stores, those in logistics, to those stocking our shelves and those checking our purchases out. Thank you to everyone keeping our economy moving during these unprecedented times.—@fordnation
$82B emergency response package
Trudeau has also announced a massive $82-billion aid package to help Canadians and businesses cope with the global COVID-19 pandemic, including income supports, wage subsidies and tax deferrals.
The package includes $27 billion in direct supports and another $55 billion to help business liquidity through tax deferrals.
Porter Airlines shutting down temporarily
Toronto-based Porter Airlines said Wednesday morning it is temporarily suspending all flights, beginning at the end of day Friday, March 20. Flights will not resume again until June 1, at the earliest.
"Remaining flights through March 20, will allow customers to complete existing trips and return home, or make last-minute reservations to reach a destination," said Porter's president and CEO Michael Deluce in a statement.
The existing waiver of change and cancellation fees means there is no cost to customers for modifying an existing itinerary, the statement continued.
Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, Porter's base of operations, will stay open. The airport is also used by Ornge, Ontario's air ambulance service.
GO Transit service reductions
A number of planned service changes on the GO Transit network come into effect today.
Metrolinx says it has reduced service by about 28 per cent overall. The UP Express is now running only every half hour, instead of every 15 minutes, and about one-third of all GO buses have been taken out of rotation.
Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said that all train corridors will still have service, however riders should be to check online before heading out for the day. There will be far fewer express trains operating as well, she said.
Ridership on the GO network was down about 60 per cent as of Monday, Aikins added, with further drops expected in the coming days and weeks.
"You go into Union Station and there is just nobody there. It's the busiest transit hub in the country under normal conditions, but we are not living in normal times right now," she told CBC Toronto.
Aikins said that her team is keeping a close eye on all of GO's various routes, and the transit agency will adjust service if any particular line is becoming too crowded.
Province cancels standardized tests
Meanwhile, Ontario's education minister announced that standardized testing has been cancelled for the rest of the school year.
Stephen Lecce said the decision was made as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has already shuttered schools across the province.
Classes have been cancelled at all public schools across the province until April 3. Under the provincial state of emergency declared yesterday, private schools are now also closed.
And the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, one of four major education unions that were ramping up job action in the weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak, said it will immediately suspend all strikes indefinitely.
Province closes Ontario Parks
As well, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Environment Minister Jeff Yurek issued a statement saying all Ontario Parks would be closed from March 19 to April 30. The closure affects car camping, back country camping, cabin accommodations, day use and all public buildings.
Visitors now in the parks will have to leave by March 19. Any person or group with a reservation from now until April 30 will be provided with a full refund, the ministers said.
"As COVID-19 continues to quickly evolve, we want to ensure public safety and the well-being of our visitors and staff in Ontario's provincial parks," Elliott and Yurek said in a joint news release on Wednesday.
With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press