One year of COVID-19 in Ontario: Where are we now?
TORONTO -- One year ago, Canada’s first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Toronto.
A man in his 50s had returned to Toronto from Wuhan, China and within a day started to feel ill. He was treated at Sunnybrook Hospital and discharged days later.
Since then, the number of daily reported cases of COVID-19 and deaths related to the disease has skyrocketed. What started as a handful of infections related to travel or close contacts soon doubled, tripled and quadrupled.
The military was called in to deal with outbreaks at long-term care homes and Ontario residents were forced by law into their homes, permitted only to leave for essential reasons such as work or groceries.
Family members have mourned the deaths of loved ones while unable to hold full funerals and health-care heroes struggled daily to provide care while dealing with overflowing beds in intensive care units.
But as people struggled to make sense of the global pandemic, small acts of goodwill and kindness prevailed. Strangers helped their neighbours get groceries and communities rallied together to cheer for those on the front-lines.
All of this is to say that a lot has happened in the last year. Here’s a look at what transpired since that first case was confirmed one year ago, on Jan. 25, 2020.
COVID-19 cases and deaths increased substantially
How it started: In the first few months of 2020, most of the COVID-19 cases were reported in people who had either travelled, or were close contacts of those who had recently been abroad. Between January and March 1, there were 11 COVID-19 cases reported and no deaths.
But by the end of March, there were 1,966 people who had been diagnosed with the disease and 33 related deaths. Officials had no choice but to concede there was community transmission of the novel coronavirus.
Where are we now: While the number of daily reported COVID-19 cases dipped in the summer of 2020, the count increased drastically starting in September and continuing into the new year. It took just 45 days to double the number of infections in the province from 100,000 to 200,000.
As of Sunday, the seven-day rolling average of daily COVID-19 cases stands at 2,459.
There are 255,002 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ontario as of Sunday, including 5,803 deaths and 225,046 recoveries.
COVID-19 lockdowns and laws
How it started: Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency on March 17, shuttering theatres, cinemas, child-care centres, private schools, and prohibiting in-person dining at bars and restaurants.
Public events of more than 50 people were also banned.
At the height of the pandemic’s first wave, residents were told to limit their socializing to people within their household. As the cases dropped in the summer, officials told residents they could create social bubbles – allowing them to meet up with 10 people without wearing a mask or socially distancing.
Since then, numerous emergency orders have been issued and location-specific lockdowns have been implemented.
Where are we now: Just before Christmas, Ford announced that a province-wide lockdown would go into effect on Dec. 26 in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. As the number of infections and deaths related to the disease continued to rise, the Ontario government issued a 28-day stay-at-home order in early 2021, effectively requiring all residents to stay home unless they have an essential reason to leave.
Thirty-three exemptions to the stay-at-home order were provided by the government.
Outdoor gatherings have been restricted to five people, as long as a two-metre distance between each person can be maintained.
Vacations and events were all cancelled
How it started: In March, government officials closed the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential travel in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. That order has since been extended numerous times and anyone who did enter the country is required by law to quarantine for 14 days.
Large events such as Toronto’s Pride Parade and Ottawa’s Canada Day celebrations were all cancelled to prevent large crowds from gathering in public spaces. Organizers took to online platforms in an effort to keep their traditions alive and drive-thru art exhibits and concerts suddenly became the go-to activity for families trying to entertain their kids and themselves.
Where are we now: The last border closure extension took place in mid-January and is set to expire on Feb. 21, although it’s quite possible it could continue past that date. Travellers must also now show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before landing in Canada in addition to self-isolating for 14 days.
The Ontario government recently announced a pilot program offering voluntary COVID-19 testing for anyone landing at Toronto International Pearson Airport.
While non-essential travel is not recommended, that did not stop officials from heading somewhere warm for the winter. MP Rod Phillips resigned from his role as finance minister after it was discovered he had travelled to a luxurious Caribbean island in December.
A member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science table, Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force, a MP from Brampton as well as an Ontario hospital CEO have been ousted from their roles due to their decision to take a non-essential trip.
Kids’ learning goes virtual
How it started: In March, the Ontario government said that students would not be returning to class after their one-week March Break while officials learned more about how COVID-19 is spread. The following month, the government decided that students would not return to the classroom and would instead learn remotely, with teachers providing pre-recorded and live sessions virtually.
Parents were told they could apply for a $200 payment to help with the costs of learning at home.
After a summer break, kids returned to school in-person in September, with secondary students using an adaptive model where they attended class on alternate days or schedules.
Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 18, about 48.7 per cent of schools in Ontario had at least one positive case of COVID-19, according to the Ministry of Education. Fifty-four of the 4,828 schools in the province had to be closed due to an outbreak or operational considerations.
There were 5,103 cases of COVID-19 reported in students and 1,094 cases among school staff. At least 1,095 additional cases of the novel coronavirus were logged in “individuals not identified,” which could include parents or family members of school-related cases.
At least one education worker died after contracting the disease.
Where are we now: After Ontario officials declared a province-wide lockdown, schools were shuttered for an additional week. In northern Ontario, students were able to go back to class on Jan. 11.
Schools in seven public health units in southern Ontario reopened Monday, while 20 others are still using remote learning with no clear return date for in-class instruction.
The province has said that schools in the province’s COVID-19 hot spots—Toronto, York Region, Hamilton, Peel Region and Windsor-Essex—will not return to the classroom until Feb. 10 at the earliest. No return dates have been provided for the other 15 public health units so far.
Long-term care homes still struggling
How it started: Seniors have been the hardest hit throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and make up the majority of the province’s more than 5,000 deaths related to the disease.
Early on, a number of long-term care homes struggled to contain outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. By late April, 50 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in Ontario were reported in long-term care facilities, prompting the government to call in the military for help.
In a damning report, the Canadian Armed Forces outlined the grim state of five long-term care homes in Ontario, claiming not only that there were staffing shortages and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), but also that there were bug infestations, old food trays stacked inside resident rooms and that patients were observed “crying for help with staff not responding.”
The report, in combination with the large number of deaths, prompted the government to launch a commission in July to investigate how the government and these facilities handled the crisis.
Where are we now: As of Sunday, 3,400 of the 5,803 COVID-19 deaths in Ontario were residents in long-term care homes.
There are also 242 ongoing outbreaks at Ontario long-term care homes and 161 at retirement homes across the province.
The province's long-term care COVID-19 commission is expected to present its findings in April 2021, but recently requested an extension until the end of the year in order to properly conduct the investigation. They said there were "significant delays" in obtaining pertinent information at the center of the commission's investigation and that officials still needed to review 5,880 pages of transcripts from dozens of interviews.
The request for an extension was denied by the Ontario government.
Front-line heroes no longer?
How it started: At the beginning of the pandemic, health-care workers were often described as “heroes,” and were the recipients of free food deliveries and nightly cheers across the province.
A number of front-line workers were also promised “pandemic pay” by the government. Those eligible would get a $4 an hour pay bump for a period of 16 weeks, along with a monthly lump sum payment of $250.
Unfortunately, there was a delay in workers receiving the pay. In June, 375,000 workers had yet to get their bonuses.
Where are we now: After a year on the front lines, health-care workers are continuing to report being overwhelmed and short staffed.
Some front-line workers have said they aren’t being paid while self-isolating following potential exposure to a positive case of COVID-19, with an Ontario nurses’ union saying it’s up to individual employers to decide whether or not they will cover an employee’s pay. There have also been reports of poor-quality PPE among community personal support workers.
Earlier this month, the Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton confirmed that more than 200 long-term care homes have yet to distribute the funding to personal support workers.
More than 5,595 health-care workers have contracted COVID-19 as of Sunday and at least 10 have died.
Non-COVD-19 care impacted by hospital capacity
How it started: At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, there were at least 283 people being treated in Ontario intensive care units.
The Ontario government has said that once there are more than 150 people being treated for COVID-19 in the intensive care unit (ICU), it becomes difficult to provide care not related to the disease.
When that number exceeds 300 people, non-COVID-19 care becomes “impossible” to handle.
Where we are now: The number of people being treated for COVD-19 in hospitals across the province has jumped. According to provincial data, for most of January there have been more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized. The number of people in the ICU has skyrocketed to about 400.
Health officials have said that doctors and families may soon have to make decisions about who will get the care they need and who will not. A new triage protocol document dated Jan. 13 states that patients with the greatest chance of survival beyond 12 months should be prioritized for critical care in the event that hospitals need to start rationing life-saving treatments.
In the meantime, the first field hospital dedicated to COVID-19 patients opened up in Burlington, Ont. on Jan. 5. Two mobile hospitals will also be deployed in the Greater Toronto Area to help free up space at hospitals in the regions to non-COVID-19 patients.
Jobs lost and found
How it started: In the first wave of the pandemic, numerous businesses and restaurants were shuttered as a result of Ontario’s state of emergency and hundreds of thousands of people were laid off.
As a result of the lockdown orders in various provinces, the Canadian government created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). About 8.9 million Canadians applied to receive financial aid.
By June, one million people in Ontario alone had lost their job. The following month, as the first wave of the pandemic began to teeter off, Ontario added 151,000 new jobs, but the majority were part-time positions.
Where are we now: The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses has said that one in six, or about 181,000 small business owners, are seriously contemplating permanently closing as a result of the pandemic.
A number of family favourite restaurants and bakeries have already shuttered, claiming they just weren’t able to keep up with the financial burden of COVID-19.
Business owners have expressed concern that they have been ordered to close in Ontario while big-box stores have been allowed to operate. Some people have tried to reopen against government orders, and in some cases that has resulted in charges.
CERB officially ended in September.
‘A light at the end of the tunnel’: COVID-19 vaccinations begin
How it started: Health Canada approved both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna COVD-19 vaccine in December. Shipments of doses started within a week and soon after, select groups of health-care workers in Ontario received their first shots.
Both vaccines require a second dose be provided either 21 days or 28 days later.
Ford has repeatedly called the COVID-19 vaccine “ a light at the end of the tunnel,” saying the shots could make the difference between life and death.
Where are we now: Ontario is currently in “ Phase 1” of its three-phase vaccine distribution plan. This phase focuses on four target groups--residents, essential caregivers and staff of congregate setting for seniors, health-care workers, adults in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit populations, and adult recipients of chronic home health care.
In mid-January, the government released a list of people eligible for the vaccine in Phase 2, which is set to begin sometime in mid-April.
However, last week Canadian officials said there will be a delay in the shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine due to production issues in Belgium. As a result, a number of vaccine appointments have been cancelled. It is unclear how these delays will impact the province’s overall timeline for vaccinations.
As of Sunday, 62,881 people in Ontario have received the complete two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Not all bad
During a time in which it would have been easier to act selfishly, most Ontarians supported one another. They stood outside their homes at 6:30 p.m. every night to clap and cheer for the front-line workers risking their lives to take care of those who were sick, they offered free food to health-care workers, seniors and the homeless, and they crafted Christmas cards for those living in isolation.
Ontarians did their best to support local establishments, explored their own backyards when they couldn’t travel and learned to bake bread (or in the premier’s case, cheesecake).
Families and friends were torn apart in 2020—whether by a geographical border, a hospital window or a lockdown order—and yet, people still stood shoulder-to-shoulder throughout the tragedy, offering their support, compassion and kindness to those who needed it the most.