Brampton reported 249 COVID cases Friday, 28% of Ontario’s total, but where is the help?
Unity among different parties inside Queen’s Park is uncommon. The nature of legislating calls for lively debates, representatives from communities across the province fighting for what they think is right. When there is universal agreement, it stands out. It signals a sense of urgency, importance; parties usually at each other’s throats find common ground on something that clearly needs to be done.
On September 17, a motion put forward by NDP MPP Kevin Yarde (Brampton North) asked the provincial government to provide urgent assistance to Peel Public Health to increase testing, staffing and contact tracing in the region. It was passed unanimously.
“People in Brampton are hurting right now because of the pandemic, and we can’t afford for Doug Ford and his Conservatives to keep shortchanging Brampton and the Peel region,” he exhorted.
Brampton MPP Kevin Yarde's September motion attempted to get further assistance for his city, which continues to see COVID-19 case numbers on the rise.
But a motion is non-binding and failing to take action doesn’t break any legal rule.
It raises questions about the motives of the Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Doug Ford. Did the party’s members only support the motion for optics? The Pointer reached out to the Ministry of Health about the promised help, but has not received a response.
On October 14, Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s chief medical officer, said the Province had not spoken to him about the additional help promised under MPP Yarde’s September motion.
On Monday, with Peel and Brampton, specifically, experiencing their worst levels of COVID cases since the beginning of the pandemic, he was asked again about what the Province is doing to help the crisis.
“We have and continue to receive support from the province and work in close contact with our provincial partners. When we reached out to the province for help with case and contact management, Dr. David Williams put a request out to other Health Units who had capacity to assist and we have since had support from over 10 health units.” He provided no details about the help and did not address why the Province has not opened a second assessment site in Brampton.
Despite Peel's October case numbers reaching the highest levels yet, promised help from the PC government has yet to arrive for Brampton, the main driver of the region's numbers.
Yarde isn’t surprised by the poor response to his motion.
“The Ford government’s decision to support my motion calling for provincial assistance for Peel in its fight against COVID-19 appears to be another empty gesture from the Conservatives to make it look like they’re doing something,” he wrote in an email to The Pointer Monday.
“Instead of following through, the Conservatives are pinching pennies to save a buck and refusing to lift a finger to help while the people of Brampton suffer during the second wave, as the local public health unit does its best with limited resources. This is just the latest in a long list of disappointments Brampton has been dealt by Conservative and Liberals governments that have neglected local health care for decades, ignoring the need for a new hospital in Brampton and an expansion of Peel Memorial.”
When the motion was passed, Brampton was not in a good spot. The city had accounted for between 20 and 25 percent of Ontario’s cases during stretches between late August and mid-September. On September 4, Ford called Brampton “broken” and on September 2 and 6 it was responsible for 37 percent of the province's confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The Province had only provided it with one assessment centre since the start of the pandemic – Mississauga has 3, Toronto has 17 and Ottawa has 7. Per capita testing levels were lagging far behind Health Minister Christine Elliott’s goal of screening 50,000 people in the province every day. And residents often waited four to five hours for a test.
Six weeks later, the situation has only gotten worse. Currently, the city, which is smaller than Mississauga, has 60 percent of Peel’s confirmed COVID cases.
On Friday, Brampton reported its highest count yet; 249 confirmed cases, representing 28 percent of the province's total (the city has 4.5 percent of Ontario’s population).
On the same day the city also had the highest rate of new infections with nearly 4 new cases for every 10,000 residents. In comparison, Toronto’s infection rate was 1.08 and Ottawa’s was .90 per 10,000 residents.
With only one permanent assessment centre throughout the course of the pandemic, Bramptonians have been forced to wait in line for hours to get tested for COVID-19.
Positive cases in Brampton have been increasing sharply since August. The first of that month saw six positive cases. On September 1, 36 cases were reported, 50 on October 1, and 147 on November 1.
Since the start of the pandemic, Brampton has had 140 total confirmed COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents; Mississauga has had 72; Toronto has had 97 and Ottawa sits at 69.
Between October 18 and 24, 9.6 percent of the tests conducted in the city came back positive, according to Peel Public Health’s weekly epidemiological update. During the same time, the positivity rate was 4.6 percent in Toronto, 4.4 percent in Mississauga and 2.7 percent in Ottawa, the other main hotspots in the province.
The update states a test positivity rate above 3 percent is “used to flag increasing infection rates or insufficient testing rates,” both of which have been an issue in the city throughout the pandemic. Exposure in households and in close-contact settings have been the leading cause of infection in Peel Region; 61 percent of the cumulative cases are tied to these settings.
What’s more unclear is where people are getting infected before they bring the virus into the house or other close-contact settings.
The city’s high proportion of front-line workers has also played a role in the high case count. These include people who can’t complete their jobs from home, such as truck drivers and those who work in the food sector.
Last week, Dr. Loh said workplaces are responsible for keeping their employees safe, and those that are not will be inspected by the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.
Essential workers, like those who work at Maple Lodge Farms or Brampton's Fiat Chrysler assembly plant are at higher risk as they do not have the option to work from home.
The Ministry told The Pointer a meeting with the Region took place on October 20 to discuss concerns. Since the start of the pandemic, 3,630 visits were conducted at workplaces in Peel, and 3,000 “orders” for compliance have been filed. Details about the orders were not shared.
When testing was encouraged for everyone, regardless of symptoms, there were often long lineups at Brampton’s lone testing centre at Peel Memorial. People had to wait hours, many often being told to return the next day. When the testing facility shifted to a drive through site at South Fletcher’s Sportsplex in the middle of the summer to allow for more screening, long lines were still the norm, and residents reported waiting up to five-and-a-half-hours to receive a test.
Since then, the rules have changed. Only symptomatic individuals can get a test at an assessment centre and asymptomatic individuals can get tested at a private pharmacy, with 9 locations in Brampton offering the service under an agreement with the Province. A Cold and Flu clinic has also opened up at Peel Memorial, but it’s only for those with “moderate” flu symptoms, though tests are offered to screen for the novel coronavirus as well.
At a maximum, the nine pharmacies can only conduct 272 tests a day, if each conducts screening from opening to close, which is not always the case.
Based on numbers previously collected by The Pointer, South Fletcher’s used an average of 578 swabs a day between September 28 and October 12. Between October 1 and 12, the Cold and Flu Clinic used an average of 122 swabs a day.
At the high end of estimates, roughly 972 tests are conducted in a day in Brampton for both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. In the past week, the Province conducted an average of 34,000 tests a day. Based on these numbers, the city should be conducting 1,524 tests every day (based on a population of 650,000). The Pointer reached out to Ontario Health and William Osler for updated testing numbers but no answer was provided. Minister Elliott has set a daily testing target of 50,000, which has not been achieved (October 8 saw the highest number of tests conducted in the province, with 48,488 completed). To reach the goal, Brampton has to complete almost 2,300 tests every day.
At Monday’s press conference, Premier Ford said he had a conversation with Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown that morning on the ongoing situation. The Pointer reached out to Gary Collins, the mayor’s director of communications, asking for details of the conversation and if Brown pushed Ford to follow through on Yarde’s motion. The Pointer was told questions can be asked at Brampton’s weekly press conference.
Since Peel was put into a modified Stage 2 with Toronto, Ottawa, and eventually York Region, Brown has been vocal about his displeasure to close indoor dining. “I think given the data says that we have not had a single case in Brampton in a restaurant setting shows that these [contact tracers] were doing their job,” Brown told CP24 over the weekend.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown says his city has not seen a single case of COVID-19 in a restaurant setting.
Dr. Loh has said “there is no way for me to say with 100 percent confidence” that no cases came from restaurants as contact tracing relies on human memory and the cooperation of people. There are also a large percentage of cases, about 20 percent, with unknown sources, so Brown’s claim is misleading.
Ford acknowledged officials will meet Monday to review plans and examine if reopening indoor dining and gyms is safe for regions currently in a modified Stage 2.
When the province was put under the strict restrictions of Stage 1, it was primarily to ensure hospitals didn’t become overwhelmed with infected individuals, as was seen in countries across the world. In the current stage, hospital beds in Brampton are filling up. Last Wednesday, William Osler’s CEO, Dr. Naveed Mohammad, shared that Brampton Civic was caring for 27 patients with COVID, 6 of which were in the intensive care unit. This is an increase from numbers reported three weeks prior: 7 patients were being cared for and 3 were in the ICU. Up to 60 beds in the ICU can be made available, with zero demand. But they can fill up quickly during a health crisis.
The fear among medical experts is that current levels of new cases, not seen since the pandemic was declared, might lead to more demand for hospital beds, including ICU space, when the infections worsen and residents require more acute care.
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