Ontario will invest $3.7 million in funding as part of the 2021 provincial budget for seniors and those with disabilities facing transportation barriers to access COVID-19 vaccines, Premier Doug Ford announced Tuesday.
The province is set to unveil its budget Wednesday, "protecting people's health, with a plan to defeat COVID-19, and support for people and jobs," according to a news release.
"We will quite literally drive you to your vaccine appointment," Minister of Finance and President of Treasury Board Peter Bethlenfalvy said, adding that the specifics of the program are still being worked out, but that it will launch "as soon as possible."
Ford spoke at a news conference held at the Thorncliffe Park mass vaccination site, which the premier said will have the capacity to administer 10,000 doses per day, depending on vaccine availability, when it opens Wednesday.
As for the focus of the budget, Ford said it will be geared toward protecting both people's lives and livelihoods.
"It's a recovery budget, looking at where we're going to be down the road," Ford said.
Ford also confirmed Tuesday that restaurant workers will be included in the second phase of the vaccination plan, but that he is still looking into whether taxi drivers will be eligible at that point.
The premier was also asked if services like haircuts, usually provided indoors, will be allowed to be performed outside instead. Ford replied that cabinet will be looking into that question Wednesday, but added, "None of us wants to go back to another lockdown."
7-day average of daily cases rises to 1,667
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 1,546 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, as the number of patients with the illness being treated in intensive care units continued a slow but steady climb.
The new cases include 465 in Toronto, 329 in Peel Region, 161 in York Region and 99 in Durham Region.
Other public health units that saw double-digit increases in cases were:
Halton Region: 64
Niagara Region: 39
Simcoe Muskoka: 38
Waterloo Region: 31
Thunder Bay: 10
(Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit on a given day, because local units report figures at different times.)
The new cases come as labs completed just 32,556 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a test positivity rate of 5.7 per cent.
The seven-day average of daily cases rose to 1,667, an eighth straight day of increases and its highest point since February 3.
According to the Ministry of Health, there were 868 people with COVID-19 in the province's hospitals as of yesterday, 324 of whom required intensive care.
However, Critical Care Services Ontario (CCSO), a government agency that compiles a daily report for hospitals and health organizations, says the number in ICUs is actually 372. Thirty-three of those patients were admitted in the previous 24 hours, CCSO said this morning.
ICU admissions of COVID-19 patients in Ontario peaked at around 420 in mid-January, during the second wave of the pandemic, according to the CCSO.
The ministry's official number is different from CCSO's because of key differences in how each does its count. The Ministry of Health stops counting a patient after two weeks of care, even if that patient requires a critical care bed for longer.
Physicians in the Greater Toronto Area have told CBC News that anecdotally, they are seeing increased numbers of younger people with severe forms of COVID-19 seeking care at hospitals. Infectious disease experts say the apparent shift could be partly due to the spread of variants of concern in Ontario.
A total of 13,894 samples that tested positive for COVID-19 have also screened positive for the tell-tale genetic mutation that indicates the presence of a variant of concern, the province said in its update today, including 666 more yesterday.
Samples that screen positive for the mutation then go for whole genomic sequencing, an intensive laboratory process that can result in reporting lags of several weeks. Sequencing allows labs to pinpoint exactly which variant of concern is present in a swab.
Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, a group that helps inform the government's pandemic response, estimates that variants of concern currently account for about 55 per cent of all new COVID-19 cases.
The seven-day averages of samples that screen positive for variants are even higher in some public health units, according to the province. In Toronto, the seven-day average is 63.5 per cent, while in Durham Region, it is 62.6 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education reported another 409 school-related cases were confirmed between last Friday and yesterday afternoon, including 333 students, 75 staff members and one person who was not identified. A total of 48, or about one per cent of Ontario's 4,828 publicly-funded schools, are currently closed due to the illness.
The province also recorded nine more deaths of people with COVID-19, bringing the official toll to 7,253.
Family doctors call for bigger part in vaccine effort
Public health units administered 50,659 doses of vaccines yesterday. Some 301,043 people in Ontario have now received both shots of a vaccine.
Meanwhile, Peel Region's percentage of Ontario's vaccines administered has fallen dramatically, while its overall percentage of doses allocated sits far below its overall percentage of the province's population.
The region, which makes up 10.5 percent of Ontario's population, has only received 6.7 percent of vaccine doses. For many Peel residents, it's a recipe for even more risk in a pandemic that has already battered the region.
Also Tuesday, the Ontario College of Family Physicians said that a recent survey found 60 per cent of vaccine-hesitant respondents were more likely to get immunized if a family doctor endorsed and administered their shot.
Dr. Liz Muggah, president of the group, said it's in the public interest to have family doctors more involved in giving out the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna shots, which have less stringent storage requirements.
Some family physicians in Toronto, Peel Region, Hamilton, Guelph, Peterborough and Simcoe-Muskoka are offering Oxford-AstraZeneca shots to patients aged 60 and older as part of a pilot project.
There have also been calls for family doctors to be more involved in helping vaccinate seniors who can't access mass immunization sites.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said more vaccine supply will be sent to primary care physicians in the future, though she did not provide specifics.
Province provides details on Phase 2 of vaccine rollout
Ontario, meanwhile, outlined strategies for vaccinating priority groups in the next phase of the rollout set to begin in April. The phase will offer shots to people who are considered at risk due to their age, job, neighbourhood or health condition.
A document shared with health units and clinics broke down categories of people who can't work from home. It encouraged workplace vaccinations and said employers should consider letting workers use paid time off to get their shots.
The government advised health units to work with communities to make vaccines accessible in hot spot neighbourhoods.
It also advised clinics to develop lists of backup recipients for remaining doses if people don't show up to appointments.