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Local health unit reports Ontario's second COVID-19 death as cases spike


TORONTO — A local health unit reported a second death in Ontario linked to COVID-19 on Thursday, saying it may be a case of community transmission, as the premier strongly urged people to practise social distancing and self-isolation.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott wasn't immediately able to confirm the death, but Halton Region Public Health said the man in his 50s also had an underlying health condition.

The man did not travel outside of Canada recently, nor does he have a known link to another confirmed COVID-19 case, said Halton Region's medical officer of health.

"The indication is there is local transmission," said Dr. Hamidah Meghani, though she cautioned the investigation is in its early stages.

"This is the tragic proof that we need to work together to slow down the spread of COVID-19.... Do your part and do it now. We only have one shot at this."

Elliott said it is still unknown whether COVID-19 was the cause of death in the first linked fatality in the province, or if that 77-year-old man died from another cause while also having the novel coronavirus.

Ontario reported 43 new COVID-19 cases Thursday — the largest single-day increase — bringing the total in the province to 257, including the one earlier death and five resolved cases.

Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the Treasury Board of Ontario, also announced Thursday that he developed mild symptoms associated with COVID-19 and has been tested.

"I've been in isolation since, working from home, and will advise when my test results are known," he said on Twitter.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, said the increase in cases Thursday reflects the province's labs catching up on a backlog of tests and more people coming home from travel outside of Canada.

Currently, 22 people known to have COVID-19 are in hospitals across Ontario, with half those patients in Toronto facilities, according to that city's chief medical officer of health.

"I don't think this has caused any undue pressure on the (hospital) system at this point," Yaffe said. "But certainly, the system is preparing for that."

Premier Doug Ford stressed it is "critical" that everyone practise social distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"We must do everything possible to avoid a situation where we see a sudden and dramatic spike in the number of cases and as a result add to the already significant burden on our health-care system," he said.

Telehealth Ontario — the service Ontarians are asked to call if they have COVID-19 symptoms — is swamped with calls.

Technical difficulties from Wednesday after 300 new lines were added have now been addressed, and the province has since added 1,300 more lines. The Ministry of Health said there were 13,500 calls made to Telehealth on Wednesday alone.

Told of reports that people are going into work after travelling, Ford urged people to follow public health advice and self-isolate for 14 days upon returning from outside the country.

"Does it come to public shaming by your neighbours or your co-workers? Folks, we're in a critical situation right now," he said.

"Do not go into work. Do not go into public spaces. Do not be selfish and go out. Stay isolated for two weeks as we require. We don't have the resources and the police to be knocking on everyone's door and saying, 'Are you staying in?'"

Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said the same will apply to any health care workers who are returning from travel outside of Canada. They too must self-isolate and not return to work immediately.

"Of course, if they develop any illness in that time, they would need to do the same process as everybody else," he said.

The Ontario government passed emergency legislation Thursday afternoon aimed at protecting workers forced to stay home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ford said it will apply to employees under investigation, supervision or treatment for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Workers in isolation or in quarantine and those who need to provide care to someone related to COVID-19, including for a school or daycare closure, would also be protected.

The bill passed with rare all-party support in just over an hour of debate during a special session of the legislature.

Given social distancing, only 26 members were in the house: 13 governing Progressive Conservatives, eight New Democrats, two Liberals, one Green, one Independent, and the Speaker.

The politicians sat spread across the chamber at Queen's Park, with several desks between each member.

Ford acknowledged the unprecedented situation and thanked all of the opposition politicians for work with his government to speed up passage of the bill.

"This is about coming together as a united group," he said. "Representing all of the people of Ontario and doing what is best to protect their health and to make sure we protect the economy."

A bill that creates temporary exemptions allowing municipal councils to meet via teleconference and to waive noise bylaws to allow grocery deliveries 24 hours a day was also passed.

The government also extended the validation periods for things like drivers licences, health cards and Commercial Vehicle Operators certificates to keep people from coming to Service Ontario locations in-person.

The extension will remain in place until health officials advise the situation has improved, the government said.

The legislature will now be suspended until March 25, two days later than it was previously set to return after March break. Finance Minister Rod Phillips is set to deliver a scaled-back economic forecast that day instead of the planned full budget.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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