A year in, here’s how Doug Ford’s government is faring in its fight against COVID-19
|Toronto Star 17 Mar 2021 at 05:57|
Every time he makes the crowded, hour-long bus ride to work at an Etobicoke grocery store, Rechev Browne wonders if it will be the day he gets COVID-19.
It’s a year into the pandemic in a province that has performed better than neighbouring jurisdictions Quebec, New York and Michigan in fighting the virus, but Browne doesn’t feel as safe as he’d like to be — even wearing a mask for 11 hours a day while he’s in transit and on the job.
More so than Ontarians fortunate to work from home with benefit protections, the 34-year-old North York resident worries about catching the virus and losing a paycheque that he describes as “slightly above” the minimum wage of $14.25 an hour.
“Just imagine what that would be like. It’s been pretty scary,” Browne told the Star during a break from a nine-hour shift unloading trucks and stocking shelves.
“In the beginning, customers were giving you that space to work, there was social distancing. But now they’re literally coming in right next to you and grabbing whatever they need right off the shelf.”
Despite growing optimism, Ontario remains in a tricky spot as it marks Wednesday’s anniversary of Premier Doug Ford’s first pandemic state of emergency declaration.
With more contagious COVID-19 variants heating up and the pace of vaccinations finally speeding up, Browne is looking forward to shots for essential workers in the spring, but fears “for a lot of people, that could be too far away.”
In one sign of the times, Peel Region’s public health department last week ordered a massive Amazon warehouse in Brampton to close down all shifts until March 27 because of a major outbreak in the facility.
“The most vulnerable populations have not all been vaccinated, workplace outbreaks remain the norm, and schools are stuck in an endless loop of closing and reopening,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner.
Ontario has confirmed an average of 1,334 new cases a day in the last seven days, up 16 per cent from a week ago — and triple the rate of growth from the previous week — as public health restrictions are relaxed and the percentage of new variant cases rises even as the spread of earlier strains declines.
On Tuesday, the science table of experts that has been advising Ford proclaimed a third wave of COVID-19 has begun.
“The risk of catching the disease has increased,” warned Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, the head of the science table and dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
Although faring worse than the Atlantic “bubble” — where COVID-19 infections have been low and mostly under control because Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador effectively sealed themselves off — Ontario has done relatively well, but with caveats.
The province has seen 48 deaths and 2,107 cases per 100,000 residents in the pandemic, compared to Quebec’s 123 deaths and 3,428 cases per 100,000 people, Michigan’s 156 deaths and 5,948 cases per 100,000, and New York’s 200 deaths and 8,625 cases per 100,000.
While Ontario confirmed its first COVID-19 infection in the last week of January 2020, Michigan, for example, did not identify its first until early March because of a lack of testing. That gave the virus a head start in spreading, and led to Detroit hospitals being overwhelmed last spring.
Michigan, with a population of 10 million, has a pandemic death toll of 16,770. That’s more than double the 7,173 who had died in Ontario as of Tuesday, in a province that’s home to 14.7 million people.
In comparison, Quebec, with a population of 8.5 million has suffered 10,558 COVID-19 deaths while New York, which has 19.5 million people, has had a catastrophic 48,537 deaths.
Manitoba, with a population of 1.4 million, has had 917 deaths, a higher death rate than Ontario’s. Alberta, with 4.4 million people, has lost 1,949 to COVID-19, while British Columbia, with 5.1 million people, has had 1,407 deaths, a lower death rate than Ontario’s.
Ford likes to cite such big-picture statistics when he comes under fire for Ontario’s response to the pandemic, and notes the province took actions like closing schools before anywhere else on the continent.
“We’re leading North America, any jurisdiction our size, with the lowest cases per 100,000,” the premier boasted last week.
But an epidemiologist said Ford’s comparisons with U.S. states are flawed because the pandemic was handled so poorly south of the border, making Canadian provinces a better comparison.
“The U.S. mentality of COVID-19 is a lot different than Canada’s,” Todd Coleman of Wilfrid Laurier University told the Star. “We have very different public health systems, we have very different feelings about individual rights and freedoms and that kind of thing.”
Coleman, a former public health official in London-Middlesex, said Ontario failed to heed early warnings from China that could and should have been extrapolated in the early days of COVID-19, such as devastating impacts on the elderly and apparent transmission in people without obvious symptoms.
“The thing was, we didn’t have the evidence because it wasn’t from our particular area. But a virus doesn’t differentiate between a population in East Asia and North America,” he added. “You knew this going in ... it still blows my mind.”
Ontario’s most tragic failure has been in long-term-care homes, where almost 3,900 elderly residents have died and 11 staff members have succumbed to COVID-19 despite Ford’s repeated vow to build an “iron ring” of protection around them.
Some nursing homes lost so many staff members that Canadian Armed Forces medical teams had to be called in last spring. The province was forced to seize control and take over some homes.
Under pressure, Ford struck a commission to probe the disaster, which will deliver final recommendations for reforms by April 30.
The panel has already grilled Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton and Ontario chief medical officer Dr. David Williams on whether they followed the “precautionary principle” of proactive protections developed in the wake of the SARS crisis 18 years ago.
In January, Ontario’s slow vaccine rollout had especially heartbreaking consequences. The shots did not arrive at Barrie’s Roberta Place nursing home until after the B.1.1.7 variant raced through, eventually killing 70 residents.
“People have recoiled in horror at what happened in long-term care,” said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, noting Ontario’s second wave of COVID-19 that started last fall and peaked in January was worse than the first for nursing homes.
Quebec, however, did better in the second wave after hiring thousands more staff in the summer, improving infection control and vaccinating more quickly, Mehra added.
“There’s no care without staff. Quebec recognized that. Ontario did not,” she said, pointing to a hiring plan that did not come out until fall and a recently announced effort to provide tuition-free training to 6,000 prospective personal support workers.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said the province has endured a “terrifying year,” which included a scathing report from the military medical teams detailing conditions in long-term-care homes, where residents were found dehydrated, starved, left in soiled diapers for hours or days and not bathed for weeks.
“Something like that should never happen in Ontario, COVID or no COVID,” Horwath said.
Viewed from another perspective, Ontario’s lockdowns, some of the most sweeping in North America, and other public health measures have come at a cost.
There has been friction over allowing big-box stores that also sell groceries, such as Wal-Mart, to stay open during stay-at-home orders, while smaller businesses were limited to online sales and curbside pickup.
Dan Kelly, president of the 110,000-member Canadian Federation of Independent Business, said Ontario has a poor track record compared with other provinces when it comes to business.
“From a small business perspective, the Ford government’s handling of the economic ramifications of the pandemic is the worst in Canada,” said Kelly.
He noted that in places like Toronto and Peel Region, businesses were ordered shut for more than 160 days of the past year, some of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns anywhere.
Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have tried to allay such concerns with grants for small businesses of between $10,000 and $20,000 — a $1 billion program, which is part of the pandemic relief spending that has ballooned the budget to a record $189.6 billion, with a $38.5 billion deficit.
A released Friday found that 53 per cent of respondents said the Ontario government has done a good job handling the pandemic, with 39 per cent saying the government has done a bad job and seven per cent unsure.
Drilling down on that, 33 per cent said the province did a good job and should keep things locked down for the rest of March, while 20 per cent said it did a good job but should relax restrictions.
On the flip side, 29 per cent felt the government did a bad job and needs current lockdown measures to continue for the rest of March, and 10 per cent said it did a bad job because the closures were “excessive and unnecessary.
That suggests almost two-thirds — 62 per cent — believe the province should remain locked down for the rest of this month.
“It doesn’t really matter one way or another what the hard left-wing or the hard right-wing partisans feel, because most Ontarians are satisfied with the government’s performance on this,” said Campaign Research principal Nick Kouvalis.
Campaign Research polled 1,344 people across Ontario from March 8-11 using Maru/Blue’s online panel. It’s an opt-in poll, but for comparison purposes, a random sample of this size has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Kouvalis said Ontarians appear understanding about the need for lockdowns.
“I don’t think anybody likes the fact that we’re locked down, but people are accepting of them,” said the pollster, who has worked with Conservative and Liberal candidates across Canada and managed the winning Toronto mayoral campaigns of Rob Ford and John Tory.