TORONTO — Health authorities stepped up COVID-19 vaccination efforts on the eve of the first anniversary of the global pandemic Wednesday amid a stubbornly consistent spread of new infections and related deaths.
As a result, the Public Health Agency of Canada urged caution in the lifting of anti-pandemic restrictions, saying easing should be slow and with special attention to emerging variants that are more contagious.
The vast majority of Canadians are still susceptible to COVID-19, Dr. Theresa Tam, the country's chief public health officer, said in a statement on Wednesday.
"Although COVID-19 activity had been declining nationally from mid-January through mid-February, daily case counts have since levelled off," Tam said.
"With the continued increase of cases and outbreaks associated with more contagious variants, we must all remain vigilant with public health measures and individual precautions to prevent a rapid shift in trajectory of the epidemic."
To date, Canada has seen more than 896,000 cases of COVID-19, with 22,335 of those being fatal. Infection rates are now highest among those aged 20-39 years old, latest data show.
About two million Canadians — about five per cent of the population — have now received at least one vaccination dose as inoculation efforts ramp up.
The federal government has shipped more than 3.8 million doses to the provinces and territories — about one-third of those still unused — with Pfizer-BioNTech still to deliver 2.8 million doses and Moderna another 1.3 million before March 31
Officials said Canada is expected to have received one dose for each Canadian by the end of June.
"Barring any issues with production, we're well on track to have those quantities delivered, and therefore provinces and territories in a position to immunize their people at a good cadence," said Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander overseeing federal vaccine distribution.
In the interim, the pandemic continued its spread, particularly in hard-hit Central Canada.
Ontario reported 1,316 new infections — most in Toronto and surrounding areas — and another 16 deaths. Quebec saw another 792 cases, with 10 more people dying from the disease.
Both provinces reported some progress on the vaccination front, with another 35,000 in Ontario inoculated and 18,000 more in Quebec.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said family doctors would start giving shots to people aged 60-64 on the weekend.
Manitoba said it would be launching pop-up vaccination sites next week in several places in an effort to reach communities far from existing "super sites" Appointments have to be booked through the provincial call centre.
The province also released a list of underlying health conditions, such as heart failure or end-stage kidney disease, that would make people with those issues a priority for inoculations.
Saskatchewan, too, said residents will be able to book vaccinations by phone or online starting on Thursday. Premier Scott Moe said the province was in the final stretch of the pandemic and the aim was to start vaccinating people aged 60 to 69 by early next month.
The province has also uncovered another 26 cases involving a variant of concern, a jump of 60 per cent from the previously reported tally.
Officials in Alberta said thousands of people made appointments Wednesday morning as bookings opened for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The province also reported 47 new variant cases.
Outbreaks at two long-term care homes in British Columbia where most residents had been vaccinated set off a reminder from a health expert about the limits of immunization.
Horacio Bach, a University of British Columbia infectious diseases expert, said older people's immune systems may take longer to produce antibodies or may not produce them at all.
He added that it's possible the new cases in the care homes are variants of concern and the vaccines may not be as effective against those strains.
The ongoing pandemic and measures to combat the spread have taken a toll on mental health, Tam said. The problem is especially acute for those without access to their regular support networks, she said.
To help mitigate pandemic-related stress and anxiety, the public health agency announced a new online portal — Wellness Together Canada. Anyone can access immediate, confidential supports for mental health or substance use at any time and at no cost.
Vaccination efforts are also ongoing in federal prisons, where infection rates have reached about 10 per cent — roughly five times the rate of the general population. About 600 offenders have received shots, Correctional Service of Canada reported.
To date, more than 1,400 inmates have contracted the virus and five have died.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had incorrect figures for the latest vaccinations in Ontario and Quebec.