TORONTO — Ontario imposed a four-week stay-at-home order Wednesday and promised to start vaccinating young people in COVID-19 hot spots amid mounting criticism that the province is not doing enough to stop the spread of the virus.
Premier Doug Ford said a surge in COVID-19 cases fuelled by more transmissible variants of concern and a sudden rise in intensive care unit admissions prompted the new restrictions.
"These variants have taken off ... and the second I found out yesterday, immediately, I asked them to start writing up the orders," Ford told a news conference.
"This is moving rapidly, every single hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and a decision last week, doesn't represent a decision today."
Ford said that by the end of the four-week period of the stay-at-home order, about 40 per cent of Ontarians - or five million people - will have received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. About 2.7 million people had received at least one dose as of Wednesday.
The province announced a month-long shutdown last week that critics said did not go far enough in addressing the third wave of the pandemic, which threatens to overwhelm the health-care system.
Ford said the province will declare a state of emergency - the third since the beginning of the pandemic - to invoke the new measures, including the stay-at-home order, which will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday.
Under the order, stores providing essential goods will remain open but will only be permitted to sell grocery and pharmacy items. Non-essential retail can open only for curbside pickup or delivery.
News of the imminent stay-at-home order sent some people rushing to stores for last-minute shopping.
Hannah Thabit, 30, said she went out to buy some personal care supplies and toys for her daughter at a store in Oakville, Ont., before measures came into effect.
"I grabbed all I need, usually I don’t buy too much,” she said. “I’m very sad (about the lockdown)...It’s been very uncomfortable for me and my daughter. We need to interact and see people.”
Nadine Brent, 48, lined up at a Winners store in Oakville to return some merchandise. She said that while she’s fine with the stay-at-home order, it's going to be hard on many Ontarians.
“I just think that them shutting it down now, when the weather is nice, … it’s not fair,” Brent said.
Ford stressed that the new measures are necessary to protect the province's health-care system.
"The reality is, despite everything we've done so far, the COVID-19 situation in Ontario is getting worse as these new variants continue to spread and hospitals are reaching capacity," he said.
Over the next few weeks, Ford said the province will start vaccinating people aged 18 and older living in COVID-19 hot spots, including teachers and essential workers.
Mobile teams will deliver vaccines in congregate settings, residential buildings, faith-based centres and large employers in areas hit hard by the virus, he added.
Regions will be selected based on patterns of transmission, severe illness and mortality from COVID-19.
"With these additional measures, we will limit mobility, limit the spread, keep people safe and allow more time to deliver vaccines, and be assured vaccines remain our best hope to beat this virus," Ford said.
Education workers who live or are employed in hot spot neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel Region will be eligible for vaccines starting next week, with plans to expand to other hard-hit areas as supply allows.
Staff who work directly with special needs students across the province will also be eligible for COVID-19 shots starting next week.
Public health officials, teacher unions and businesses have been calling on the province for weeks to urgently start vaccinating essential workers.
Some COVID-19 hot spot regions like Toronto and Peel have already closed schools, moving classes online.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on the premier to spare no expense and do the right thing for people in the province.
“Help Ontarians to wrestle this virus to the ground, and the nightmare that's unfolding before our eyes,” she said.
The CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario said the province must now ramp up vaccinations by enlisting the aid of thousands of primary care nurses, doctors and home care providers.
“We have over 20,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors working in primary care they have not been put to use to any big degree,” she said. “They’re very frustrated.”
Peel Region's medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, said the variants of concern have "won this round."
"Even if we vaccinated everyone in Peel today, we would still not see changes in our trends for over four weeks," he said. "That means the second thing that we all need to do right now is to stay home as much as possible."
The Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters said vaccinating essential workers would help keep workplaces in the province safe and open.
CEO Dennis Darby said Ontario is set to vaccinate those workers in May or June, while American workers in the same setting have largely been vaccinated.
“As a sector that employs over 750,000 essential workers in the manufacturing sector that continue to go to work every day – we must ensure that Ontario uses every resource available to them to increase vaccination rollout," he said.
The province reported 3,215 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 17 more deaths linked to the virus.
-with files from Denise Paglinawan and Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press