Ford hints at more restrictions as Ontario expands vaccination plan in hot spots

The latest:

Ontario is widening its vaccination plan in hard-hit areas and Premier Doug Ford hinted at further restrictions as the country’s most populous province faces a growing strain on hospitals and intensive care units from COVID-19 cases.

Residents aged 50 and over in “hot spot” postal codes — 90 or so neighbourhoods in 13 public health units that were identified by Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table — can start signing up for vaccines in the coming weeks, health officials said Tuesday.

Many of those who will be eligible under the initiative are essential workers, officials said. However, younger essential workers likely won’t have access to shots until mid-May at the earliest, according to a slide deck they presented.

The update to Phase 2 of Ontario’s vaccine rollout came as Ford comes under increasing pressure to tighten restrictions beyond the 28-day provincewide “shutdown” that took effect on Saturday. 

A security guard gestures as people arrive at the City of Toronto-operated mass COVID-19 vaccination site in East York Town Centre, servicing the Thorncliffe Park community, an area disproportionally impacted by COVID-19, on March 24. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

In a letter dated April 4, medical officers of health in Toronto, Peel Region and Ottawa urged the province to impose stronger public health measures immediately, saying a provincial stay-at-home order is needed now to curb COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s medical officer of health, announced Monday that he would use his authority to close schools in Brampton, Mississauga and Caledon for the next two weeks. The region’s weekly case rate, as well as its seven-day average of test positivity, are both the highest in Ontario right now.

Meanwhile, Toronto Public Health is poised to close all public schools on Wednesday and move students to remote learning, according to a school board memo obtained by CBC Toronto.

At Tuesday’s briefing, Ford, who is due to speak with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau later Tuesday, signalled new restrictions ahead for the province but did not offer any specifics.

“We’re going to have further restrictions moving forward, very very quickly,” he said.

Ford also noted malls in hot spot regions were rammed over the weekend, specifically pointing to Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto, and said provincial officials will be discussing “the options for how we can address the issues we’re seeing in retail settings.”

Ontario on Tuesday reported 3,065 new cases of COVID-19 and eight additional deaths. According to a provincial update, hospitalizations stood at 1,161, with 510 people listed as being in ICU “due to COVID-related illness.”

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At an earlier briefing Tuesday, Trudeau expressed concern about the pressures on health system capacity that some provinces are facing.

“This isn’t the news any of us wanted, but hospitalizations are surging. ICU beds are filling up,” the prime minister said, noting that variants of concern are spreading.

“COVID-19 isn’t done with us yet, and that means we all have to hold tight a little longer.”

– From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 2 p.m. ET

What’s happening elsewhere in Canada

As of 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Canada had reported 1,018,684 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 59,899 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 23,132.

In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia reported six new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, and New Brunswick reported three new cases. There were no new cases reported in Prince Edward Island.

Health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador had not yet provided updated figures for the day.

Quebec, which has expanded its lockdown to include several additional municipalities, on Tuesday reported 1,168 new cases of COVID-19 and four additional deaths. According to the provincial dashboard, hospitalizations stood at 514, with 121 people in ICUs.

Premier François Legault is expected to hold a news conference at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday, but it was not immediately clear what he would announce.

In the Prairie provinces, Manitoba reported 62 new cases and two new deaths on Tuesday.

Saskatchewan reported 219 new cases of COVID-19 and one additional death on Monday. There were 195 people in hospital with COVID-19-related illness, including a record-high 47 in ICUs,  The bulk of the patients needing intensive care were in Regina, where tighter public health measures are in place in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, in Alberta, the province’s top doctor said Monday that the number of confirmed cases of a COVID-19 variant that are linked to a large employer is likely to rise.

So far, three of 26 infections linked to work sites in Alberta’s central and northern zones are confirmed to be the Brazilian variant, but Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that’s likely to increase as more results come in. She said there was also an outbreak of five cases — one linked to the Brazilian variant — at a separate Calgary-area workplace.

Alberta reported 887 new cases of COVID-19 and four additional deaths on Monday. Hospitalizations on the province stood at 312, with 76 people in intensive care.

Across the North, there were no new cases reported in Nunavut or Yukon on Monday. Health officials in the Northwest Territories reported one case on Monday in Yellowknife. The person is a Northwest Territories resident and the infection is “related to international travel,” a statement from the office of the chief public health officer said Monday. “The investigation and contact tracing does not identify any risk to the public at this time.”

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In British Columbia, health officials reported 999 cases on Sunday and 890 cases on Monday. The province said 23 people had died from complications linked to the virus since Thursday. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Monday there is a “significant” amount of P1 in the province and he expects the variants of concern to eventually replace less transmissive COVID-19 strains.

“What we know is the most transmissive varieties, the variants of COVID-19, are ultimately going to take over,” he said. “We’ve seen that in other jurisdictions and we expect to see that here.”

Of the 318 people in hospital, 60 are linked to variants of concern, he said.

Coronavirus variants of concern are on the rise — and not just in B.C. — sparking repeated calls from health officials across Canada to stick with public health measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. As of Monday evening, a federal tracking site had recorded more than 15,200 variant cases, including:

  • 14,009 cases of the B117 variant first reported in the U.K.
  • 337 cases of the B1351 variant first reported in South Africa.
  • 857 cases of the P1 variant first connected to travellers from Brazil.

– From The Canadian Press and CBC News, last updated at 2 p.m. ET

What’s happening around the world

Suez Canal captains receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Ismailia, Egypt. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 132 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to a case tracking tool maintained by U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. The global death toll stood at more than 2.8 million.

It is a travesty that some countries still have not had enough access to vaccines to begin inoculating health workers and the most vulnerable people against COVID-19, the head of the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

“Scaling up production and equitable distribution remains the major barrier to ending the acute stage of the COVID-19 pandemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.

In the Americas, U.S. President Joe Biden was set to announce Tuesday that he is shaving about two weeks off his May 1 deadline for states to make all adults eligible for coronavirus vaccines. Biden was set to make the announcement at the White House later Tuesday following a visit to a vaccination site in Virginia, a White House official said.

With states gradually expanding eligibility beyond such priority groups as older people and essential, front-line workers, the president plans to announce that every adult in the U.S. will be eligible by April 19 to be vaccinated, the official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Biden’s plans before the formal announcement.

The new deadline of April 19 is about two weeks earlier than Biden’s original May 1 deadline. The president had announced just last week that 90 per cent of adults would be eligible for one of three approved vaccines by April 19, in addition to having a vaccination site within five miles (eight kilometres) of their home. CNN was first to report on Biden’s planned announcement.

WATCH | Fears of 4th COVID-19 wave grow in the U.S.:

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In New York, people over 16 years old can sign up for COVID-19 vaccination starting Tuesday. That’s a large expansion of eligibility as the state seeks to immunize as many people as possible.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo expanded eligibility to 30 and over last week and announced people age 16 to 29 would be eligible on April 6. Teens age 16 and 17 will be limited to receiving the Pfizer vaccine, since it is the only one authorized for use in people under 18. None of the available vaccines have been approved for people under 16.

Colombia, meanwhile, will allow private imports of COVID-19 vaccines, the health ministry said on Monday, but the shots must be free for those being inoculated.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Prime Minister Keith Rowley has tested positive for the coronavirus, his office said Tuesday. Rowley was tested after experiencing flu-like symptoms on Monday, according to a government statement. He is isolated and under medical supervision.

Rowley had spent the Easter holidays in Tobago and was scheduled to be vaccinated on Tuesday, the same day the twin-island nation launched its vaccination program after receiving more than 33,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.

In the Asia-Pacific region, many Indian state leaders have asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to open up vaccinations to most of the country’s hundreds of millions of adults, following a second surge in infections that has eclipsed the first wave.

Election officers wear protective gear as they prepare for COVID-19 positive patients to cast their votes for the Tamil Nadu state assembly elections in Chennai, India, on Tuesday. (R. Parthibhan/The Associated Press)

Australia on Tuesday said it had not yet received more than three million doses of previously promised AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine amid export curbs by the European Union, leaving a major hole in its early nationwide inoculation drive.

In Africa, the World Bank estimates that Africa would need about $12 billion US for COVID-19 vaccines and their distribution to attain sufficient levels of vaccination coverage to interrupt virus transmission, according to a new paper by the bank and the IMF.

In Europe, Spain is stepping up its vaccination drive, with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez saying Tuesday that a steep rise in deliveries over the coming months will allow the country to inoculate 70 per cent of its adult population — some 33 million people — against COVID-19 by the end of August.

“The priority now, more than ever, is to vaccinate without respite,” Sanchez told a news conference. “Vaccinate, vaccinate and vaccinate.”

Spain’s new COVID-19 infections have been edging higher in recent weeks. The 14-day cumulative incidence — a key contagion metric — rose Monday to 163 cases per 100,000 people, from 149 a week earlier. The country expects to receive 87 million doses by September.

“Anyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one,” Sanchez said.

Hungary will begin gradual easing of restrictions within days, as it expects to have 25 per cent of its population of 10 million inoculated by Tuesday or early Wednesday.

In the Middle East, Pfizer said on Monday it was working on a new deal to supply COVID-19 vaccines to Israel after an initial supply agreement forged in late 2020 ended.

– From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 1:15 p.m. ET

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