Ontario reported an additional 914 cases of COVID-19 and the deaths of 19 people with the illness on Friday, as the province opened appointments for second doses of vaccines for more people ahead of schedule.
Ontarians aged 70 and older, as well as those who got a first shot of Pfizer or Moderna on or before April 18 can book an appointment for a second dose through the provincial system — or through their public health unit, depending on where they live — starting Monday.
That's a week earlier than planned for those 70 and above, and three weeks earlier for those who got Pfizer or Moderna before April 18.
That said, these same groups, as well as anyone who got a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, can also opt to book a second shot through a pharmacy or primary care provider participating in the immunization campaign starting today.
According to a news release from the province, there are 327 pharmacies in Toronto, Kingston and Windsor offering second shots of AstraZeneca, and 450 offering the Moderna vaccine.
Ontario expects to receive 4.7 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine through June, and recently 193,000 more doses of the Moderna vaccine landed in the province.
The move to open up appointments for second shots for Ontarians who got an mRNA vaccine prior to April 18 was met with some criticism from medical professionals.
Dr. Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto, said on Twitter that it "crystallizes the mistake" of the province's decision to delay first doses for middle-aged residents and essential workers in hot spots until later in April.
Delta variant expected to become dominant strain in Peel
In recent days, some experts have stressed the need to get second doses to those groups as the "delta" variant of concern first identified in India continues to spread.
Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table estimates that the delta variant now accounts for about 27 per cent of all new cases of COVID-19 in the province.
Preliminary research suggests it is likely even more transmissible than earlier variants of concern, including the B117 "alpha" variant that became dominant during the third wave of the pandemic in Ontario, and could also cause more severe illness.
Importantly, first doses of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines appear to be less effective against the delta variant. Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health in Peel Region, said in an interview with CBC Radio yesterday the vaccines are just 33 per cent effective in preventing illness from the variant after a single shot.
Delta is expected to become the dominant strain in Peel within a few weeks, Loh said.
Earlier in the immunization campaign, the province allocated an increased share of available doses to hot spots, though stopped doing so in mid-May.
Warner said that even if public health units wanted to target hot spots and essential workers for second doses locally, the change in allocations mean they won't have the supply to do so.
Peel Public Health announced Friday it would offer shortened second-dose bookings starting Monday, June 7 at 8 a.m.
The appointments will be open to book on Monday for residents aged 70 and up, and those who have received an mRNA (Pfizer or Moderna) vaccine on or before April 18, 2021.
First doses for anyone 12 and older are also available for residents who have not booked an appointment. Some pharmacies and primary-care providers may offer eligible residents a second dose if supply allows.
The move comes as projections show the more contagious and severe Delta variant (B.1617) is expected to replace the Alpha variant (B.117) as the dominant strain of the virus in Peel in under four weeks.
"The Peel community has worked too hard to lose what we have regained to yet another variant," Peel's Associate Medical Officer Monica Hau said.
"We need to move quickly to provide second doses to residents to stay ahead of the new Delta variant and prevent a fourth wave in Peel, which ultimately helps prevent a fourth wave across Ontario. Two doses of vaccine are our best defence and significantly increase protection from B.1617."
Meanwhile, public health units collectively administered 168,322 more doses of COVID-19 vaccines yesterday, the most ever on a Thursday and the second-most on a single day. More than 59 per cent of Ontarians have now had at least one shot.
7-day average of cases falls below 900
Today's case count is higher than recent days but notably lower than last Friday, when the province logged 1,273 new infections.
The seven-day rolling average of daily cases fell to 889, the first time it has dropped below 900 since Oct. 29, 2020.
Ontario: New daily cases of COVID-19
Labs completed 32,258 tests and Public Health Ontario reported a provincewide positivity rate of 2.8 per cent, also down from last Friday's rate of 3.4 per cent.
The number of total active infections stands at about 9,459. During the peak of the third wave of the pandemic, there were nearly 43,000 active cases in the province. That said, Ontario stops counting an infection as "active" after two weeks, so the figure does not necessarily reflect the real number of people who are experiencing COVID-related illnesses.
As of Thursday, there were 687 people with COVID-related illnesses in hospitals. The last time that number dropped below 700 was in mid-March. Of those hospitalized, 437 were being treated in intensive care units, while 357 needed a ventilator to breathe.
The 19 additional deaths pushed the official toll to 8,820. The seven-day average of deaths rose to about 15.6.
Ontario sends another letter on borders
Ontario is again asking the federal government to strengthen border enforcement, saying more infectious COVID-19 variants are threatening the province's reopening plan.
In a letter to their federal counterparts, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones outlined the province's concerns about the risks of international travel during the third wave of the pandemic.
They called for a federal requirement that fully vaccinated international travellers present proof of immunization and take a COVID-19 test on arrival.
For international travellers who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 a stronger quarantine regime should be in place, they wrote.
"Ontario is committed to working with you to do whatever it takes to protect Canadians from the variant pandemic and future variants," the ministers wrote.