Ontario reported another 1,958 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, as experts heading the province's vaccination campaign outlined how they are responding to delays in the delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The new cases include 727 in Toronto, 365 in Peel Region and 157 in York Region. They come one year after the first confirmed infection of the novel coronavirus in Canada was found in a patient in Toronto.
Other public health units that saw double-digit increases yesterday were:
Niagara Region: 82
Durham Region: 62
Halton Region: 54
Simcoe Muskoka: 41
Waterloo Region: 39
Eastern Ontario: 11
Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge: 11
(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, because local units report figures at different times.)
It was the fewest number of new infections logged on a single day in nearly a week. The seven-day average of daily cases continued its steady decline down to 2,371, the lowest it has been since Dec. 30, 2020. It has been trending downward since its peak of 3,555 on Jan. 11.
Notably, however, Ontario's network of labs processed just 35,968 test samples for the virus despite capacity for more than 70,000 daily. Collectively, they reported a test positivity rate of 5.5 per cent.
Another 2,448 cases were marked resolved in today's report. There are now 23,620 confirmed, active infections provincewide, down from a high of more than 30,000 earlier this month.
According to the province, there were 1,398 people with COVID-19 in hospitals, though as is often the case on weekends, about 10 per cent of hospitals did not submit data. A total of 397 patients were being treated in intensive care, while 283 required a ventilator to breathe.
Public health units logged another 43 deaths of people with COVID-19, pushing Ontario's official death toll to 5,846.
Meanwhile, at a media briefing this morning, members of Ontario's vaccine distribution task force said the province will delay first doses for health-care workers and essential caregivers amid a shortage of the Pfizer product.
Available doses of vaccines will instead be channelled only to residents of long-term care and at-risk retirement homes, as well as First Nations seniors living in elder care settings. The goal is to have all those who fall into one of these groups be given a first dose of vaccine by Feb. 5, 10 days earlier than first planned.
Health workers in the long-term care sector as well as essential caregivers were slated to be vaccinated during the initial stages of the province's rollout, alongside residents. Due to delays in expected shipments of the Pfizer vaccine, however, the focus in coming weeks will be solely on people at the highest risk of severe illness or death, officials said.
The shift means that front-line health-care workers in other settings, such as those doing direct patient care in hospitals, will have to wait longer than originally planned to be immunized.
"As we speed up vaccines for the most vulnerable, we have to ensure that we're able to provide their second dose," Premier Doug Ford said at a news conference Monday.
"Delivery delays are now forcing us to be careful and cautious."
Provincial officials also said there is uncertainty surrounding expected shipments of the Pfizer vaccine the weeks of Feb. 8 and Feb. 15. The federal government has not yet specified how many doses Ontario should anticipate receiving in that period, they said, making it difficult to provide a granular timeframe for when those shots will be administered.
Moreover, all of Ontario's 34 public health units are expected to have vaccines available for priority groups by the end of this week. As of this morning, there were 14 health units that thus far had not received any doses for administration.
The province said it gave out 5,537 doses of vaccines on Sunday. A total of 286,110 shots have been administered, while 71,256 people have received a second dose.
"As soon as there is certainty in deliveries ... it will be full steam ahead," Ford said.
"It is our hope that by the summer, everyone who wants to get a vaccine will be able to get a vaccine."
Ontario has 34 cases of variant 1st detected in U.K.
Dr. Vanessa Allen, chief of microbiology and laboratory science at Public Health Ontario, told reporters later on Monday that the province has now identified 34 cases of the variant first detected in the United Kingdom, but none of the variants first found in South Africa and Brazil. These strains are called "variants of concern," she said.
Allen said some evidence indicates that the variant first detected in the U.K. is transmitted more easily and causes more severe disease in some people. This particular strain of COVID-19 has been found in more than 60 countries, she said.
Public Health Ontario has developed a screening test for this variant and it is being used to test any COVID-19 positive traveller, people in more aggressive outbreaks, and people who have been identified as having a characteristic pattern on one test used in three labs in Ontario.
All samples that tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 20 will be tested for the variant by Public Health Ontario to give the province a snapshot of it, she said.
Testing for variants needs to be tied closely with public health measures, she added.
"We're working very closely with our public health colleagues, including the public health units, to ensure that these individuals that are identified with the variant of concern are prioritized for case and contact management and other supports," she said.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said daily case numbers have begun to drop in some public health regions or are reaching plateaus in others and the province is beginning to see the effects of the stay-at-home order and the second declaration of emergency.
"We keep seeing the numbers coming down steadily. We're going in the right direction," Williams said.
The province, however, is continuing to see high numbers of deaths and the number of people in intensive care units has not dropped extensively, he said.
Williams added that Ontario residents still need to be careful and follow public health measures.
100,000 students return to school
Schools in seven public health units across southern Ontario reopened for in-person classes today.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that means 100,000 students will be returning to the classroom for the first time since before the winter break.
The province is implementing more safety measures in areas where schools are reopening, including requiring students in grades 1 through 3 to wear masks indoors and when physical distancing isn't possible outside as well.
It's also introducing "targeted asymptomatic testing" in those regions.
While it's been more than a month since students in southern Ontario have been in the classroom, classes resumed in the northern part of the province on Jan. 11.
The provincial government has said the chief medical officer of health is keeping a close eye on the COVID-19 situation in public health units where schools remain closed to decide when it's safe for them to reopen.
But the province has said that in five hot spot regions — Windsor-Essex, Peel, York, Toronto and Hamilton — that won't happen until at least Feb. 10.
The public health units where schools are reopened today were:
Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge
Hastings and Prince Edward Counties
Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington
Leeds, Grenville and Lanark
Calls for paid sick days mount
Also on Monday, a group of southern Ontario mayors, as well as provincial opposition parties, renewed their calls for the institution of paid sick days to help workers during the pandemic.
A group of Greater Toronto and Hamilton-area mayors issued a news release again asking the province or federal government to step up.
The release notes that despite the ongoing lockdown in Ontario, the GTHA continues to see outbreaks in essential workplaces, despite current federal aid. Simply put, people are still going to work sick, the group says.
"Failure by the federal or provincial governments to address this issue will result in people continuing to avoid testing and continuing to come to work sick," the release states.
"Updating the sick pay benefits available will save lives and help bring the virus under control faster."
Ford has repeatedly rebuffed calls for sick days — after his government slashed the requirement that was instituted by the previous Liberal government — saying federal benefits are able to cover off the issue.
Both the provincial NDP and the Liberals published notices today of their intent to introduce legislation to institute paid sick days. With a majority Progressive Conservative government however, such moves are unlikley to pass unless PC members vote against their own party.