COVID-19 Pandemic is Ontario’s 3rd state of emergency

Preceded by SARS and The Blackout of 2003

The coronavirus pandemic triggered Ontario’s first state of emergency since 2003.

That year SARS and the Blackout both resulted in the province taking this extraordinary measure, under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, said Ontario’s Ministry of Health Tuesday evening.

Premier Doug Ford said the pandemic made a state of emergency necessary.

“COVID-19 constitutes a danger of major proportions,” he said. “We are taking this extraordinary measure because we must offer our full support and every power possible to help our health care sector fight the spread of COVID-19. The health and well-being of every Ontarian must be our number one priority.”

All facilities providing indoor recreational programs, all public libraries, private schools, licensed child care centres, bars and restaurants (excepting those with takeout food and delivery), theatres and concert venues were required to close immediately.

All organized public events with more than 50 people – such as parades, events and places of worship – are also banned, until March 31, 2020, when they will be reassessed and considered for extension.

Ontario’s state of emergency has reminded many provincial residents of SARS 17 years ago.

Health Canada says SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is a respiratory illness that is spread through close contact with an infected person.

The first Canadian cases were identified in March 2003 in people who had travelled to Hong Kong and returned to Canada. The majority of cases were in Ontario, but cases were also reported in British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan, Health Canada says.

On March 14, 2003, Ontario’s Ministry of Health (MOH) identified about four cases of atypical pneumonia resulting in two deaths within a single Toronto family – providing an indecent and distribution link to SARS.

It was declared a provincial emergency on March 26, and those people who had been exposed were isolated. All patients and visitors to health care facilities were screened and had their temperature taken.

Dedicated SARS wards were created in select acute care hospitals and SARS assessment clinics were set up to evaluate symptoms presented by the general public, MOH says. And new enhanced infection control procedures were put in place at all levels of the health care system.

But health care workers were exposed to SARS from direct contact while caring for patients.

At the height of the outbreak, thousands of people – mostly in the Toronto area – were quarantined for 10-day periods at home. Dedicated SARS phone lines were set up to counsel those in self-isolation and to support those in need of groceries, medicine and other supplies with deliveries.

The last viral transmission of SARS was reported June 12, says the MOH. During the six months from SARS’ arrival until the last patient was discharged from hospital, 375 cases were recorded and there were 44 deaths, says the MOH.

The Blackout happened later the same year.

Just after 4 p.m. on Aug. 14, 2003, most of Ontario – including Barrie, Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, Sudbury, Kitchener, London and Windsor – found themselves without power, along with a number of American cities. Traffic lights, office buildings, public transit and airports shut down.

The Blackout was blamed on Ohio-based FirstEnergy when its power shut down and the company was unable to react and warn anyone until it was too late – and a cascading effect ensued. More than 100 power plants in Ontario and the northeastern US shut down.

The blackout affected a reported 10-million Canadians and 40-million Americans in eight states.

Even as power returned to many parts of Ontario the next day, then-premier Ernie Eves declared a state of emergency and asked that any non-essential or non-emergency service workers stay home.