Today, the Ontario government announced that the City of Toronto and Peel Region will move into Stage 3 on Friday, July 31 at 12:01 am. The decision that these health units are ready to enter Stage 3 was made in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health and local medical officers of health and was made based on data showing positive trends of key public health indicators. These regions will join the 31 public health units already in Stage 3. Windsor-Essex County Health Unit is now the province’s only public health unit remaining in Stage 2. While this region is making progress, the decision was made that more time and data are needed before this region can safely enter Stage 3. Details on the Stage 3 re-opening framework can be found in the Framework for Reopening our Province: Stage 3.
The Ontario government said it is supportive of proposals made by the City of Toronto and Toronto Public Health to further limit close contact and interaction in restaurants, bars and other food and drink establishments that are permitted to open in Stage 3. These proposals are in the process of being adopted.
The province continues to remind the public that the public health advice (practising physical distancing with those outside your household or social circle, wearing a face covering when physical distancing is a challenge or where mandatory to do so, staying home when ill and washing hands frequently) that allowed us to reach this point is even more critical as more of the economy opens up. The Premier repeatedly indicated that large gatherings and parties, as seen on the weekend, are not permitted.
Today, the Ontario government launched the promised independent commission into COVID-19 and long-term care. While long-term care homes in Ontario are relatively stable now, COVID-19 caused great losses in the system. The commission will provide guidance on how to better protect residents and staff in long-term care homes and prevent future outbreaks.
The commission will be chaired by Associate Chief Justice Frank Marrocco. The other two commissioners are Angela Coke, a former senior executive of the Ontario Public Service and Dr. Jack Kitts, the recently retired former President and CEO of the Ottawa Hospital. More details on the Commissioners can be found here.
The mandate of the commission will be to investigate how COVID-19 spread within long-term care homes, the impact it had on residents, staff and families, the adequacy of the action taken by all parties including the government to prevent, isolate and contain the virus. The commission has the power to compel documents and evidence, summon people for interviews and hold public meetings. The government promises the findings will be comprehensive and objective; the final report will be delivered to the Minister of Long-Term Care by April 30, 2021 and will be made public. The full terms of reference for the commission can be found here.
The additional two health units entering Stage 3 means that thousands more business are ready to reopen safely and more people can return to work. The Toronto and Peel health units are two of the biggest in the province. So, as of Friday, a significant part of Ontario’s economy will move to the level of openness likely to remain in place until a vaccine is found. Ontario’s regional approach continues to be effective at balancing the needs of the economy while continuing to put public health needs first. Earlier this week, the Premier was questioned on the criteria necessary for a region to rollback to Stage 2, as regions, like Ottawa, continue to see spikes in cases. Premier Ford said the current spikes are manageable and that the health care table will continue to monitor the data.
The COVID-19 impact on long-term care was greater than expected and caused significant loss of life. At this time, about 80% of COVID-19 deaths in Canada have been of people in long-term care homes, a higher proportion than other OECD countries. Premier Ford has repeatedly said that he wants to fix the broken long-term care system he inherited. The independent commission, which was promised in May, is one piece of the puzzle to get a better understanding of the cracks in the system. According to the government, the independent commission will bring promised justice and accountability. The Ford government has promised that the commission will be free of government influence while providing timely information. The commission cannot make any conclusions on criminality according to its terms of reference, but information on criminal acts will be turned over to the OPP. In addition, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General and the Chief Coroner are also conducting investigations related to COVID-19. Premier Ford also indicated during the press conference that he would take the Commissioners up on recommendations they provided.
The Ontario government is not waiting for the results of the independent commission to make improvements to the long-term care system. The government recently announced a pilot program to fast-track the building of three new long-term care homes, funding to create new and redevelop existing long-term care beds, as well as a new funding model for long-term care homes. The Minister of Long-Term Care is also awaiting a staffing report and will continue to implement the recommendations of the Public Inquiry into Long-Term Care Homes. Hopefully, the combination of these factors will lead to improved care for seniors, which they need and deserve.