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Horwath: Government's decision to reopen "unconscionable", OHA warns of third COVID wave

Ontario Premier Doug Ford arrives for a news conference at Queen's Park during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Monday, September 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Shocking and confusing. Unconscionable.

Opposition members and the organization representing thousands of Ontario’s doctors and frontline workers are speaking out following the Ford government’s decision to move certain regions, such as Halton, Durham, and Hamilton, to the province’s “Red-Control” zone which will see several businesses reopen on Feb. 22.

The reopening plan is going ahead next week against the backdrop of stark scientific modelling presented Thursday that predicted a “third wave” of infections and another lockdown could be prevented with a continuing stay-at-home order.

The pandemic science advisory group said a lockdown imposed on Boxing Day and stay-at-home order issued last month has lowered infections, hospitalizations, and positivity rates in Ontario.

But more contagious variants of the virus are spreading and will likely cause infections to spike later this month, the group said, making stay-home measures important to reign in the spread.

When asked whether the reopening should be paused in light of the projections, Premier Doug Ford said people should still avoid travelling and stay home when possible to keep infections low.

“We’re doing a little bit of a balance and letting small businesses open up very, very cautiously,” he said.

“It’s really up to the great people of Ontario that have done a great job so far.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the Progressive Conservative government’s decision to lift restrictions “unconscionable.”

“It is still possible to save ourselves from another devastating round of illnesses, deaths, closures, and lockdowns,” she said in a statement. “But Doug Ford needs to avoid repeating his mistakes of opening up too fast.”

Ontario Hospital Association (OHA) CEO Anthony Dale called the decision to reopen “shocking and confusing.”

In a series of tweets posted Friday, he said the move is a “huge gamble” given the science table’s projections.

“The warning could not have been clearer. An exhausted, overextended hospital sector is likely going to have to deal with a (third) pandemic wave,” Dale wrote.

“Ultimately the consequences of, and responsibility for, today’s decision to reopen on Feb. 16 rests with the Government of Ontario.”

The province has said it will use an “emergency brake” measure to move regions back into lockdown quickly if necessary.

Toronto, Peel Region, York Region, and North Bay Parry Sound are set to remain under the stay-at-home order until at least Feb. 22.

The health unit covering North Bay was set to enter the colour-coded framework on Feb. 16, but the date was pushed back at the request of the region’s top doctor after a steep rise in cases.

Preliminary results suggest at least 18 people at a North Bay, Ont., apartment building has been infected with a new, more infectious variant of the virus.

Amid fears from health officials that the new variants could drive an especially dire third wave — as has been seen across the world where the variants have taken hold — the provincial government announced it would expand the use of rapid virus testing.

Health officials said Friday that the use of the rapid tests will be ramped up in Ontario schools, long-term care homes, and essential workplaces in the coming weeks.

Students in all health units will return to in-person classes next week after starting the school year with remote learning in a bid to limit COVID-19 spread.

Health officials expect to distribute one million tests weekly once the program ramps up.

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