COVID-19 watch: Ontario sees first coronavirus-connected fatality, Ottawa ramps up response

COVID-19 watch: Ontario sees first coronavirus-connected fatality, Ottawa ramps up response

Ontario saw its first fatality with a connection to the novel coronavirus as the federal and provincial orders of government further escalated their responses and urged citizens to take extraordinary measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.

A 77-year-old man was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus following his death at Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie.

The man in question had preexisting health issues, which makes determining the cause of death difficult, prompting more inquiry from health officials.

"I know all Ontario families join me in extending our heartfelt condolences to his friends, family and loved ones," Health Minister Christine Elliott said in a statement. But the cause of his death is not immediately clear.

"Whether this person passed away because of COVID-19 or with COVID-19, that's a really important distinction," she explained at Queen's Park. She added that the coroner's office will investigate further. Answers may be available as soon as tomorrow.

Officials also considered how he potentially acquired the virus. "This person had been in close contact with another person who was also positive with COVID-19."

The fatality is the first related to the coronavirus in Ontario and the fifth in Canada. The previous four occurred in British Columbia. Ontario and BC have so far accounted for most of the coronavirus cases in Canada.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams acknowledged that Ontario's first death with a connection to the coronavirus was an inevitability, but that shouldn't lessen the significance. "It's still a loss," he said, adding that the person is more than a number and has loved ones.

Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath also passed on her condolences. "My heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the gentleman in Muskoka who passed away. I’m wishing them comfort during this very very difficult time," she said at a Queen's Park press conference.

Green Leader Mike Schreiner also passed on his condolences and in a statement highlighted the need for everyone to do their part to limit the damage. "We all have a role to play in combating this pandemic to reduce the risks for senior citizens and people with underlying health conditions. Every act of social distancing that we take can reduce the spread of infection and potentially save lives. We are all in this together."

Earlier in the day the government announced a state of emergency to respond to the coronavirus crisis, including shutting down child-care centres, bars and restaurants and places of worship.

Ontario saw some good news in the lowest number of positive coronavirus tests in one week, with only eight additional cases. But Williams warned against reading too much into the results from one day. "It will have ebbs and flows," he said of the daily data that is updated at 10:30 a.m. each morning. He said it's too soon to discern a particular pattern from a one-day drop. "We need more data," he added. But he also stressed vigilance and made the harsh reality clear. "The number of cases in Ontario is moving rapidly."

Ontario has had 186 positive cases of the novel coronavirus thus far, with 92 per cent of those related to travel outside Canada or close contact with another person who has tested positive. Of the people who acquired the virus abroad, 29 per cent of those cases came from the U.S., the one country whose citizens are still allowed to travel into Canada's borders.

Williams added that Public Health Ontario is trying to rapidly ramp up the amount of testing it does. It made changes to increase the number of tests to 2,000 a day, but he wants to see that number increase to 5,000 daily. Widespread testing is seen by officials as an important element to an effective responses, with Premier Doug Ford this morning citing South Korea, a country which has led the way in testing, as a place with best practices to emulate.

With limited testing available at the moment, Williams stressed only patients who meet select criteria should be tested and said work on new guidelines for who should be tested is underway.

"We do not want any people tested who have no symptoms," he said.

Another health expert reiterated that a one-day decrease in positive tests does not necessarily mean the province has turned the corner on the global pandemic.

"What we've seen over the last number of days is an exponential growth in cases," explained Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. He said that the relatively recent emphasis on social distancing would not yet be reflected in the numbers, given that there's a lag period between infection and diagnosis. "That doesn't reflect a biological process," he said of the dip in the number of daily cases. "That either reflects the testing process or a decision to go slow with the release of new case numbers" or some other factor, he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled that the impact from the virus will likely continue to get worse, and urged Canadians to make significant efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

"As much as possible stay home," he implored, speaking in Ottawa in front of his home where he is in in self-isolation following the positive test of his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. "Don't go out unless you absolutely have to."

The message came as the prime minister indicated uncertainty about what the near future looks like, and whether the current state of widespread closures and self-isolation will continue for weeks or months.

Trudeau indicated that an additional economic package is on its way on top of the $10 billion worth of measures that have already been put into motion. Other countries, like the U.S. and Great Britain, are also reportedly working on economic packages that are similar in size to stimulus put in place during the Great Recession of 2008–09.

An announcement from Trudeau will come tomorrow, and will include measures to increase liquidity for businesses and make alterations to tax season, according to his address Tuesday morning. The government is also looking closely at the Emergencies Act to determine which powers it might need to exercise during the crisis, Trudeau added. The public welfare emergency section Emergencies Act gives the federal government extraordinary temporary power to ensure public safety, including restricting travel, building emergency shelters, emergency funding measures and the forced evacuation of areas. The measures must be approved by parliament and last no more than 90 days.

"If we act now, even if seems like a big ask, things will be better tomorrow," the prime minister said, making the case for Canadians to make short-term sacrifices.

The House of Commons will also briefly return this week to pass emergency measures, he said, adding that the federal government is working with the other parties on the arrangements. Queen's Park is looking to meet on Thursday for the same reason, according to Ford and Horwath.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu reduced the call from the federal government to an appeal of a more basic human instinct: kindness and decency in a time of crisis. "There are scared people, there are lonely people, there are frightened people and it doesn’t take a lot to them to reach out and say you’re there with them, even there in spirit, to ask them what they need," she said following the prime minister's address, choking back tears as she did so.

With files from Jessica Smith Cross and Sneh Duggal

David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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