Community spread blamed for over half of Ontario's new COVID-19 cases, 'perplexing' top doctor

After several days in which fewer than 400 cases of COVID-19 were added to the provincial tally, Friday's report was up again, with 477 new cases reported.

Friday's count of 477 new cases the highest in a week; province aiming for 20,000 tests a day

Ontario's chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams made the comments on a day that saw 477 new confirmed cases of the virus — an uptick in a week where the number of new coronavirus cases appeared to be trending down. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario's top doctor says community spread is responsible for more than half of the province's new COVID-19 cases, something he says is "perplexing" given the weeks of stringent physical distancing measures in place.

Approximately 55 per cent of the new cases cannot be traced to a clear source, Dr. David Williams said at a news conference Friday afternoon. 

"It is still perplexing to me that we're not making major headway going down on that," Williams told reporters. "It makes me wonder if people are being less than consistent in their physical distancing, and if they were in close contact, if they were not wearing a facial covering in those few moments."

"You still have to do that or we're going to be in this plateau for quite a while."

Williams made the comments on a day that saw 477 new confirmed cases of the virus — an uptick in a week where the number of new coronavirus cases appeared to be trending down. Ontario's new case counts fell below 400 on three out of the last four days, with the lowest being 370 on Monday.

Earlier in the day, Premier Doug Ford said the province Ontario needs to increase its daily COVID-19 testing to 20,000 as the province looks toward slowly reopening. 

Speaking at his daily briefing, Ford said three things were on his mind when he awoke Friday morning: long-term care, personal protective equipment and Ontario's new job numbers, which he said "weigh heavy on my heart."

WATCH | Ont. health minister says COVID-19 cases trending down, despite recent spike:

Ontario health minister says COVID-19 numbers are trending down, despite recent spike

3 years ago
Duration 1:23
'There's not going to be a big step down on a daily basis,' said Christine Elliott, but the province will see a gradual decline.

New numbers released from the Statistics Canada labour survey show Ontario lost more than one million jobs during the pandemic, including 94,000 health care and social assistance jobs since February.

Ford also expressed frustrations over frontline workers accessing personal protective gear after a fifth personal support worker died of COVID-19, in what a union says was a preventable tragedy.

Unifor confirmed Leonard Rodriquez, 61, died after 30 years of providing care. He was sent home following possible exposure to the virus at a supportive housing facility. 

Ford called it "unacceptable" that frontline health-care workers may not be able to access PPE, telling them to call his office directly if they're being denied protective gear.

As discussions about reopening the economy continue, Health Minister Christine Elliott acknowledged "there is still some community spread," echoing Ford's calls for increasing daily testing from the province's goal of 16,000, which was set back in April.

The province's network of labs processed 16,295 tests in the last 24 hours — lower than its testing capacity of 19,525 — but struggled to meet its target for much of the past week. 

Thursday saw 15,179 tests completed, but the count was far lower than that in the days prior — Tuesday's total came in at just over 10,000 — for which Ford took aim at some of the province's medical officers of health earlier this week. Over 14,000 tests are pending.

Ford told reporters he was on a call with the premiers and the prime minister Thursday, in which he was adamant he does not yet want the border with the U.S. to be reopened. He said the premiers of Quebec and British Columbia feel the same way. 

He also reiterated a plea for people from outside the province not to enter Ontario, and called for increased screening at airports and border crossings, saying those measures need to be increased "tenfold" and shouldn't be left to Canadian Border Services officers. 

Along with a jump in confirmed cases, Friday's data also shows that outbreaks at long-term care homes continue to proliferate. Nine new outbreaks were added to the province's list, bringing the total number of homes with outbreaks to 234. 

The official death count sits at 1,540, an increase of 63 from the last update. Data reported directly from regional public health units, however, puts the actual death toll at at least 1,649.

The number of COVID-19 patients requiring a ventilator also increased to 166 from the 155 reported on Thursday.

The latest numbers come after news that an employee of Maple Lodge Farms, a poultry processing company, has died of COVID-19.

A truck leaves a Maple Lodge Farms chicken processing plant. The company has reported one worker death and 25 positive cases of COVID-19. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

In a release, the company says that 25 of its employees have tested positive for the virus so far. Maple Lodge Farms says it has introduced heightened safety measures, including requirements around physical distancing and masks, to keep its workers safe.

Meat processing plants have been the site of a number of major COVID-19 outbreaks in Canada. That includes the largest outbreak in the country, at Cargill near High River, Alta.

Ford briefly visited cottage after telling people to stay home

The premier also acknowledged Friday that he made a brief stop at his family cottage during Easter weekend — despite asking Ontarians to avoid their own seasonal homes.

"Do not go to your cottage," said Ford at his April 8 press briefing, just two days before the long weekend. 

"There's no one that loves the cottage more than I do. But I'm not going to my cottage." 

On Friday, a spokesperson for Ford confirmed he drove up to the property alone on Easter Sunday "to check on the plumbing."

"He spent less than an hour there, and on his travel he didn't stop anywhere, and he didn't interact with anyone," the statement said.

Cottages and seasonal homes have been a hot button issue throughout the pandemic, with smaller communities concerned about visitors and temporary residents bringing the virus up with them. 

This week, Ford met with regional mayors in cottage country about the issue.

Ford isn't the only politician who is being asked questions about how he spent that long weekend: in mid-April, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were also on the defensive for their weekend travel. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford drove alone to his family's cottage on Easter Sunday to check on the plumbing, according to a spokesperson. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Ontario wants to change PPE rules for care workers: union

Meanwhile, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario says the provincial government has asked to begin discussions about changing a directive that gives all workers access to N95 masks, saying the province believes the masks aren't necessary.

The union says the N95 masks block aerosolized virus particles and offer better protection than surgical masks currently in use — but that the masks aren't widely available to workers despite the provincial rule.

More than 1,600 workers in the province's long-term care homes have tested positive for COVID-19 and a personal support worker in Orleans, Ont., died from the virus earlier this week.

A spokesperson for Minister Elliott says the health and safety of Ontarians and front-line health workers is the government's top priority and that the government is looking to ensure workers are protected amid a strained global supply chain for the equipment.

"We are collectively looking at how we may overcome these supply chain challenges, including through domestic production opportunities and the safe reprocessing of supplies," Hayley Chazan said in a statement.

Check-in on province's fiscal outlook

Ontario's fiscal watchdog is expected to deliver a report on the province's financial outlook next week.

The Financial Accountability Office says it will release its annual budget outlook despite the province having not released its annual spending plan because of the pandemic. 

Ontario instead announced a $17 billion spending package in March to support the province through the pandemic. The new spending will deliver a major blow to Ontario's bottom line, pushing the deficit from $9 billion to a projected $20.5 billion for 2020-21 — a level not seen since the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips says the province will release a full budget on November 15. 

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