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Ontario's top doctor not confident about reopening, after Ford says details of Stage 1 coming Thursday

The province has now seen 20,907 infections since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus began in late January. Nearly 74 per cent of those cases are now resolved.

Province extends state of emergency to June 2; cases rise for 2nd straight day after 6-week low

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams says he isn't confident the province has met the threshold to embark on Stage 1 of its reopening plan. The premier said details of Stage 1 will be unveiled Thursday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario's top doctor says he does not feel confident that the province has met the threshold to start on its economic recovery plan — just hours after Premier Doug Ford announced the details of the first stage of reopening will be unveiled Thursday.

"We haven't yet," said Dr. David Williams, saying Ontario is on the seventh or eight day of a downward trend, but that the curve isn't falling as rapidly as he'd like.

"We haven't had all those things come together where we say now we're ready to enter stage one. I think we're getting closer but if it was already there, I would have already recommended it."

Earlier Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford signalled that more "good news" is on the way as the province reported 361 new cases, a second straight day of increasing case numbers after a six-week low over the weekend.

Speaking to reporters, Ford said Ontario will "hit stage one" of the province's three-stage framework for reopening the economy released some weeks ago, starting Thursday. 

"We've hit stage one on Thursday so we'll have more details as that rolls around," Ford said.

WATCH | Ontario Premier Doug Ford on moving toward 1st stage of reopening:

Premier Doug Ford told reporters he'll have more good news to share the coming days, saying the province will have "hit stage one" of its recovery plan Thursday. 1:34

"On Thursday, we will share more good news," the premier continued, adding the announcement could see the reopening of some seasonal businesses, low-risk workplaces and essential services.

The premier's office later clarified, ""We are not announcing that we are in Stage 1 on Thursday; we'll be providing details about Stage 1 on Thursday."

Testing falls far short of target

The news comes as the province completed just 11,957, the current target of 16,000 tests per day and far less than the 19,525 tests there is capacity for in the system. The backlog of tests waiting to be processed sits at 10,811. 

Asked about the province's testing lag, Ford replied, "We are leading the country now in tests overall per capita... we are one of the leaders in testing globally, worldwide," but also acknowledged "we do want to hit 20,000."

Health Minister Christine Elliott blamed a lack of transportation for getting test samples to labs over the weekend, saying the hope is that as the economy opens up, that will no longer be an issue.

Ford also said he would like to see "random" testing for COVID-19 to create a baseline to measure what the impact of reopening the economy might be. That kind of testing would have to wait until after all long-term care residents and health-care workers are tested, the premier said.

But the chief medical officer of health discounted the idea Tuesday, saying any testing should be purpose-driven and that there would be little point to doing so otherwise.

Ford, who raised plenty of eyebrows Monday after admitting two of his daughters who don't live in his household visited his home for a gathering over Mother's Day weekend, was also asked when Ontarians could expect to be able to hold gatherings of more than five people.

The premier replied that he'll have more to say Thursday on "if we're going to move it from five to 10."

Tuesday's new cases mean the province has now seen 20,907 infections since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus began in late January. Nearly 74 per cent of those cases are now resolved.

The majority of cases, just over 62 per cent, continue to be concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area. The cumulative total also includes 3,485 cases that are health-care workers.

Ontario's official death toll grew to 1,725, an increase of 56 since the last update. Data compiled from regional public health units — a more accurate snapshot of current deaths — puts the real toll at at least 1,839.

The number of COVID-19 being treated in hospitals, intensive care units and with ventilators remained relatively stable after several days of fluctuating figures:

  • Hospitalized: 1,025, a decrease of 2.
  • ICUs: 192, a decrease of 2.
  • Ventilators: 146, a drop of 1.

Public health officials have tracked a total of 249 COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities and 98 retirement facilities. Some 1,239 residents have died from COVID-19-linked illness, according to the Ministry of Long-term Care. 

NDP calls for public inquiry into long-term care deaths

The premier was asked Tuesday if he would commit to a public inquiry the province's handling of COVID-19 — Ontario held a public inquiry after the SARS crisis in 2003, which killed 44 people across the province. Ford said only that there would be reviews "top to bottom."

"We're going to do a complete review of long-term care," said Ford, adding  his government  "inherited a mess," and that province will need financial help from the federal government to tackle the problem.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, right, speaks at the legislature as MPPs maintain physical distance from each other. Ford would not commit to a public inquiry into the province's long-term care system. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Ontario's official Opposition is calling for a full public inquiry into the long-term care system.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the province must investigate the system that has been at the centre of numerous deadly outbreaks during the pandemic.

During the first question period at Ontario's legislature in months, Ford said his government will review the system. A limited number of politicians from all parties are in attendance to conduct the session while respecting physical distancing.

The government is also extending the state of emergency in the province to June 2.

"The declaration will allow Ontario to continue to enforce current emergency orders, such as restricting retirement and long-term care home employees from working in more than one facility and prohibiting events and gatherings of more than five people," the province said in a release.

Horwath said the province needs to examine the weaknesses in the long-term care system that made it so vulnerable to the pandemic.

"Will the premier commit to a full public inquiry into LTC with a mandate to review not only the tragedies of the last couple of weeks, but for the last couple of decades?" Horwath said.

Ford stressed that his government agrees the long-term care system in the province is "broken," but stopped short of agreeing to the sweeping probe.

"We're going to review the system," he said. "A system that's been broken for decades. I can promise you one thing, we are going to fix it. We're going to fix it collectively as a legislature. Not just a party, but everyone in this room."

CNE cancelled for 1st time since WWII

Also on Tuesday, the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) announced the cancellation of its 2020 summer event, marking the first time since the Second World War that Canada's largest fair will not be held.

The annual fair had been scheduled to run from Aug. 21 to Sep. 7 at Exhibition Place in Toronto.

"Safety always comes first at the CNE, and the decision to cancel our event is the right decision during this critical time to protect the health of all Canadians," said John Kiru, president of the Canadian National Exhibition Association, in a statement.

The fair was last cancelled from 1942 to 1946 when it was converted into a military training and recruitment centre.

The CNE is Canada's largest fair, generating some $128 million for Ontario's economy and attracting more than 1.4 million visitors each year. (Ed Middleton/CBC News)

Some health care workers excluded from pay increase

Meanwhile, a union representing thousands of hospital workers says many of its members are not eligible for the province's pandemic pay premium.

The president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions says maintenance staff, dietary workers and ward clerks are excluded.

Michael Hurley says those workers work in spaces where they could be exposed to the virus.

He says the funding to pay workers has also yet not flowed to hospitals.

The province announced last month that hospital workers would earn a $4 hourly premium and a $250 monthly lump sum.

Elliott says the province could still expand the pay premium to other workers.

Nurses association calls for sweeping change

Also Tuesday, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario updated its previous calls for change in part by incorporating lessons learned from the deadly outbreak, calling for sweeping changes to the healthcare system.

The association said the health-care system is too focused on hospitals and should instead concentrate on providing comprehensive primary care for all, and set out 13 recommendations in a report dubbed ECCO 3.0.

The recommendations include a call to integrate long-term care homes in Ontario's regional health teams to ensure they don't fall through the cracks of the health-care system.

Other recommendations include extending primary care into settings like homeless shelters, modernizing staffing and housing models in congregate care settings, and expanding primary care to include addiction and mental health services.

The association's chief executive officer, Doris Grinspun, says long-term care facilities should be included in the regional health teams that are central to the redesign and which are already cropping up across the province.

Ontario's health minister suggested there's no need to make such inclusion mandatory, saying the association's key recommendations are already happening naturally as regional health teams take shape.

The Ministry of Long-term Care did not immediately respond to request for comment.

With files from Shanifa Nasser, Lucas Powers and The Canadian Press

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