Ontario reported another 994 cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, as the government works to update its immunization rollout following updated guidance that the time between doses for some vaccines can safely be pushed up to four months.
Public health units administered 30,409 doses of vaccine yesterday, a second straight record day in the province. A total of 268,118 people have received both shots and there are now immunization appointments being offered to residents aged 80 and older in at least 10 public health units.
Yesterday afternoon, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) issued a revised direction that the interval between shots for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be extended to 16 weeks. Clinical trials have shown the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to be up to 92 per cent effective after a single dose.
The move will allow more people to get a first dose more quickly.
In a statement, the Ontario Ministry of Health said it welcomed the new recommendations from NACI.
"This will allow Ontario to rapidly accelerate its vaccine rollout and get as many vaccines into arms as quickly as possible and, in doing so, provide more protection to more people," a ministry spokesperson said in an email.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, also praised the new recommendation, saying it means the province might be able to move up its timeline of vaccinating all residents by early fall.
Williams said health officials are now in talks about how an adjusted timeline could affect Ontario's reopening framework, adding that the move might allow some congregate settings to be "more flexible and more allowable."
Don't use AstraZeneca vaccine in people aged 65 and older: NACI
The province's COVID-19 vaccine task force is now re-evaluating its immunization strategy as it awaits to hear more from the federal government about how many doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to expect in coming weeks. Health Canada approved the third vaccine last week.
NACI has also recommended against using the AstraZeneca vaccine in people aged 65 and older, even though Health Canada has authorized it to be used in adults of all ages.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that Ontario will follow NACI's recommendation, but wouldn't specify whether or not the AstraZeneca vaccine will instead be prioritized to other age groups or vulnerable communities.
"We expect to distribute all of them broadly across the province," she said.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, coordinator of the provincial outbreak response, said Ontario will continue to prioritize high-risk residents, but that it continues to look at "innovative approaches" to the vaccine rollout.
WATCH | Questions remain about the use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to immunize seniors against COVID-19
Elliott also said earlier this week that the public can expect more clarity soon on who will qualify as an essential worker during phase two of the immunization campaign.
Also on Thursday, the government announced a further $500 million to help Ontario's 444 municipalities offset costs of the pandemic.
The City of Toronto will receive $164 million, while Ottawa is set to receive $33.4 million.
You can see how much funding has been allocated to your own municipality here.
The additional money was announced jointly by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark and Treasury Board President Peter Bethlenfalvy.
Amounts to individual municipalities were determined by combining household data and the relative proportion of COVID-19 cases confirmed in their respective health units, the province said.
Premiers call on Ottawa to increase health-care funding
This comes as Ontario Premier Doug Ford and several other provincial leaders are calling on the federal government to shoulder a larger share of health care costs in Ottawa's upcoming budget.
Quebec Premier François Legault, chair of the Council of the Federation, delivered that message at a virtual news conference on Thursday afternoon. Other premiers joined virtually.
The Canada Health Transfer is the federal government's primary contribution to covering the delivery of health services in the provinces and territories.
Right now, the provinces spend about $188 billion on health care and the federal government covers $42 billion of that figure — roughly 22 per cent of total costs. The premiers have asked for a permanent increase in the federal share to 35 per cent cent, which works out to an additional $28 billion.
"Today we all have the same message for the federal government: now is the time to act and increase the Canada Health Transfer," Legault said, adding that if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn't act, it's the country's "most vulnerable that will suffer."
"We believe that our demand is reasonable."
If approved, Ontario says the budget increase would provide the province with more than $10 billion in additional health care funding, which would be allocated toward the following:
Increasing access to home and community care so seniors can stay in their homes longer.
Building more long-term care beds and improving the quality of care in long-term care homes.
Addressing the large backlog of surgeries and procedures that has accumulated during the pandemic.
Improving wait times and increase access to services and procedures at hospitals.
"In Ontario alone, 40,000 seniors are waiting for long-term care beds," Ford said.
"Canadians can't keep waiting for better health care … but the reality is, no province can do this alone."
The health transfer was the focus of a meeting between the premiers and Trudeau late last year.
At the time, Trudeau promised to increase health care funding to the provinces — but not before the immediate pressure of the pandemic subsides.
Announcement expected Friday on Toronto, Peel lockdowns
The new COVID-19 cases in today's update include 298 in Toronto and 171 in Peel Region. Yesterday, the local medical officers in both health units asked that their respective regions be moved into the revised grey "lockdown" tier of the province's colour-coded restrictions system.
That would mean that the stay-at-home order is lifted and non-essential businesses are allowed to reopen to customers with limited capacity, among other changes. You can read the province's breakdown of each tier of the framework here.
Williams said the number of novel coronavirus variants, as well as the per cent positivity rates for both Toronto and Peel Region, are "going up steadily" and are "concerning" to health officials.
"These are not insignificant numbers," he said. "We want to be cautious at this time."
Williams is expected to announce on Friday the health units that will move to a new tier.
96 more cases linked to variants of concern
Other public health units that saw double-digit increases in cases were:
York Region: 64
Simcoe Muskoka: 39
Niagara Region: 37
Halton Region: 33
Thunder Bay: 24
Durham Region: 23
Waterloo Region: 23
Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District: 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.)
This comes as Ontario's lab network completed 65,463 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and reported a test positivity rate of 2.1 per cent.
Labs also confirmed 92 more cases linked to the virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, bringing the total thus far to 644. Another four cases were confirmed to be the variant first found in South Africa, pushing the total to 31.
On Tuesday, 350 test samples provincewide were screened for the tell-tale spike gene that suggests the presence of a variant of concern. The spike was detected in 136, or about 39 per cent, of those samples. Those samples are then sent for whole genomic sequencing to determine the specific variant of concern.
Meanwhile, the seven-day average of new daily cases fell to 1,064.
The Ministry of Education reported another 101 school-related cases: 77 students, 21 staff members and three people who were not identified. Twenty-six schools are currently closed to the illness. That's about 0.54 per cent of Ontario's 4,828 publicly-funded schools.
A total of 649 people with COVID-19 were in hospitals, according to the Ministry of Health. Of those, 281 were being treated in intensive care and 183 needed a ventilator.
The 10 additional deaths in today's update push the province's official toll to 7,024.