Toronto’s top doctor Eileen de Villa says the city has passed a “sobering milestone,” marking more than 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 2,700 deaths.
The announcement comes just one day before the anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic.
“This last year has been one of extraordinary challenge,” de Villa said, before urging Torontonians — as she has done repeatedly in recent weeks — to stay the course.
“We are doing everything possible to vaccinate Toronto as quickly as possible,” she said at the city’s COVID-19 briefing for reporters.
“I want to thank Torontonians for continuing to follow public health advice and urge you to continue doing so.”
Stay-at-home orders in the city were lifted this week after four months, with the city officially moving into the grey zone under the provincial framework.
However, confirmed case counts have continued to rise, sparking concern that a third wave is approaching. On Wednesday, de Villa reported 473 new confirmed cases. Peel Region reported 244 new cases and York Region reported 149 new cases.
Provincially, Ontario reported an additional 1,316 new cases. The seven-day average climbed for a fifth straight day to 1,238, its highest point in about a month (though it is important to note that, due to a data error, the daily case count on March 8 was artificially inflated by a few hundred infections that should have been reported the previous Saturday).
“There remains a real risk that we will begin to see an increase in COVID-19 cases over the coming days and weeks,” de Villa said.
Still, both de Villa and Mayor John Tory said the outlook isn’t all bad.
Toronto receives $94.5M to prevent outbreaks in homeless shelters
On Wednesday morning, the Ontario government announced it was earmarking $255 million for municipalities and Indigenous communities specifically to address outbreaks in homeless shelters. Of that amount, $94.5 million will go to Toronto.
Of the 20,000 people who used Toronto’s homeless shelter system last year, 711 contracted the disease — and six died with the virus.
One recent outbreak linked to the COVID-19 variant has ripped through the Maxwell Meighen Centre in downtown Toronto, infecting dozens of people.
Of the new funding, Tory told reporters, “this is very good news.” However, he was mum on specific uses for the funds.
“It really just finances our overall efforts,” he said. The mayor added that the priority is on enabling physical distancing, which means finding alternative spaces like hotels to act as shelters to avoid overcrowding.
“It will be very well used,” Tory said, “and it’s still very much needed.”
To date, the city says it has helped nearly 1,330 people move from encampments into “safe spaces.”
Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said in a statement that with the increase in shelter outbreaks, the province needed to take action.
“This investment will provide our municipal service managers with the financial ability to take any means necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 in shelter spaces,” he said.
In late February, Ontario added homeless people to the list of those who qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine under Phase 1 of its plan. Shelter-system residents were to start receiving their initial vaccine doses last week, the city said at the time.
Vaccinations at 3 mass clinics to begin March 17
Tory said the city will have enough vaccine supply to begin operating three mass-immunization clinics next week, one in Scarborough, one in Etobicoke and one in downtown Toronto.
As such, he said the city expects to begin vaccinating people 80 years of age or older on March 17 — two weeks ahead of schedule. Starting this Friday, people who meet the eligibility criteria will be able to register for a vaccine appointment online at Toronto.ca/covid19.
Toronto Fire Chief and head of emergency management Matthew Pegg says the clinics will run seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. He said it’s too soon to say whether the clinics will ever run 24 hours a day.
However, Pegg said once the clinics are operating at full capacity he expects they will vaccinate half a million people every month. This figure does not include those who receive vaccinations at pharmacies or hospitals or other, non-city run clinics.
“This is truly a team Toronto effort,” Pegg said.
While the city is starting with people who were born in 1941 or earlier, he said that once people become eligible that eligibility is permanent and nobody needs to worry about accidentally missing a vaccination window.
On Wednesday morning, the city also put out a $5.5-million request for proposals to community services agencies to act as “agencies for vaccination efforts” in roughly 140 neighbourhoods.
“We won’t stop until everyone who wants their shot receives their shot,” Tory said.