Canada’s most populous region has declared a one-month stay-at-home order and announced plans for mobile vaccine teams to target high-risk workers – including teachers and factory and warehouse workers – as it battles a surge of Covid-19 cases.
Launching the measures on Wednesdy, the Ontario premier, Doug Ford, pleaded with residents to remain at home. “The risks are greater and the stakes are higher,” said Ford.
After growing calls to vaccinate frontline workers in the worst-affected areas, Ford said the province plans to vaccinate teachers in virus hotspots as early as next week – more than a month earlier than expected.
The move comes less than a week after Ontario reversed plans to re-open businesses.
Thanks in part to the B117 variant, new cases in Ontario have tripled throughout March. The surge has overwhelmed the province’s intensive care units, breaking records previously set during the previous second wave of the virus.
In recent days, ICU admissions have increased at a rate faster than the province’s worst-case scenario modelling, said Ford.
Despite reassurances from the province’s education minister that schools are safe, medical officers in the province’s two largest regions, Peel and Toronto, announced they would close schools for two weeks as a precautionary measure.
Ford’s announcement that the province plans to vaccinate anyone 18 and older in the hardest-hit areas marks a victory for activists who have highlighted inequities in the current vaccination rollout.
Recent data from Ontario’s Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences has shown that while the virus has devastated members of low-income, racialized communities – many of whom are essential workers – vaccines have been slow to roll out to those same communities.
But Ford again resisted calls for paid sick leave, which policy experts say would benefit essential workers.
“The stay-at-home order is totally necessary, but doesn’t get at the roots of where Covid-19 variants are and how they’re spreading, particularly amongst essential workers,” said Naheed Dosani, a palliative care doctor and health justice activist. “This order, in isolation, will not get at the crux of the matter, which is protecting essential workers who have to go to work.”
Dosani and others have called for paid sick leave, paid time off for vaccination and rapid testing, policies they believe could play a role in helping to contain the worsening outbreak in the province.
“Ultimately, staying home is a privilege,” he said. “And if we haven’t learned that by this point in the pandemic, I don’t know when we will.”
While Ontario, the country’s manufacturing and shipping hub, has seen a surge in cases in recent weeks, other provinces are grappling with their own outbreaks that are hitting a younger demographic.
British Columbia, the country’s westernmost province, is currently battling an outbreak of the P1 variant, first documented in Brazil, which has led to a record number of active cases.
Last week, Whistler ski resort was the site of the world’s largest P1 outbreak outside of Brazil, prompting health officials to enact a “circuit-break” lockdown.
Neighbouring Alberta, which has long resisted lockdown measures, announced new restrictions earlier this week, cancelling in-person dining and limiting retail as the P1 variant threatened to overwhelm the province’s healthcare system.
As vaccines slowly roll out across the country, federal officials say they have recorded more than 15,000 cases of variants in the last week, up from 9,000 from 30 March.
“The predictable nature of this is the hardest part of it all. We knew what was coming. That’s why health workers on the frontlines having to deal with the ramifications of this are, are feeling demoralized, in a way that we haven’t felt before,” said Dosani. “These are not Covid-19 deaths. These are vaccine-preventable deaths.”