Ontario is setting aside a $100 million contingency fund to fight COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford says after days of pressure to detail plans to combat the new coronavirus declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
The money will go toward medical supplies, protective gear, testing kits, hiring of staff and other measures deemed necessary, Health Minister Christine Elliott said Wednesday as she revealed a strategy to designate some hospitals COVID-19 centres if necessary.
“We will have to see how things transpire,” she added, noting that would leave remaining hospitals clear for other medical needs.
Ford moved to reassure Ontarians that his government has “a plan for every scenario” as the province waits on pins and needles for signs of person-to-person transmission of the virus, which health officials have long expected given infection patterns elsewhere.
“Our number one priority for the people of Ontario is your health, to make sure that you’re safe,” Ford told reporters after opposition leaders were briefed on preparations for the illness spreading rapidly around the world.
“As it changes our plans are being tweaked. It depends on the scenario,” the premier added. “We have a plan for every scenario…we have a full, detailed assessment plan from every single ministry” in government.
To date, there has been no unexplained community transmission of COVID-19 in Ontario, where cases have been travel-related — although health officials are concerned about a Sudbury man in his 50s who works for the Ministry of Natural Resources and who has tested positive with a case.
His illness is believed to be linked to a mining convention in Toronto on the last weekend of February that attracted more than 20,000 people from around the world. Public health officials in Toronto and Sudbury are trying to determine where he may have come in contact with the virus.
“We can’t say exactly from whom,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health.
Ford and several of his cabinet ministers attended that convention — along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — but the premier said he feels fine and has not been warned to take any precautions.
“I don’t have any concerns,” said the premier, who is heading to Ottawa for meetings with Trudeau and others Thursday and Friday on dealing with the virus.
Ontario also has its first case of a health worker with COVID-19, a Halton woman in her 30s who recently returned from Hawaii and is an oncologist at the Juravinski cancer hospital in Hamilton.
Authorities said Ontario is not at the point where bans of mass gatherings are necessary, but did encourage people or groups planning large events to consider risk levels depending on where attendees are coming from, their ages and whether events are inside or outside, where fresh air mitigates transmission of germs.
With many employers warning staff they will have to self-isolate for 14 days if they travel to global COVID-19 hot spots, Ford said this province does need to follow New Brunswick which has announced a similar protocol for schoolchildren who travel internationally over March break.
“Right at this stage I would say no.”
Opposition leaders said they appreciated the briefings, although NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was disappointed at a lack of specifics on what Ontarians can expect to deal with on a personal level and maintained “the more information the better.”
That concern was echoed by Green Leader Mike Schreiner, who noted “I think the government heard that message.”
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MPP John Fraser, the Liberal leader in the legislature, said he is confident the government is “transfixed” with responding to the coronavirus with a number of committees of senior staff and outside experts considering numerous angles.
It’s important to concentrate on the basics of hand washing, cough etiquette and staying home if you’re sick to make sure Ontarians develop good habits that can prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep demands for medical services as low as possible.
“We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “There’s enough time to criticize in this place. Right now let’s work together.”