Ford defends vaccine rollout as Ontario sees 3,670 new COVID-19 cases, record hospitalizations

Ontario reported another 3,670 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, as the test positivity rate logged by labs topped 10 per cent for the first time and total admissions to hospitals and ICUs climbed to new pandemic highs. 

1,822 people with COVID-19 now in hospitals, Ministry of Health says

Health-care workers move through the intensive care unit at Scarborough Health Network’s Centenary Hospital in Toronto earlier this month. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Amid ongoing confusion about when and how young people in COVID-19 hotzones can be vaccinated, Ontario Premier Doug Ford defended the province's vaccine rollout plan. 

"I have to tell you that 2.8 million people didn't find it confusing," Ford told reporters Tuesday. 

"It's very, very simple," he said, before sharing the COVID-19 booking website and phone number — despite the fact that those 18-49 cannot book through those means. 

On that point, Ford said, "I never mislead anyone. I'm very, very clear."

Health Minister Christine Elliott also played defence Tuesday, maintaining that politics did not play a role in the province's identification of particular hotspots. On Monday, CBC News reported that five of the 114 designated postal codes have rates of infections, hospitalizations and death below the provincial averages.

Meanwhile, CBC News identified seven postal code zones that have felt a greater impact from COVID-19 as measured by the province's official criteria, yet are not classed as hot spots. All are located in ridings held by the opposition parties.

Ford spoke at the BAPS Shri Swaminaraayn Mandir, which has been set up as a pop-up vaccination clinic in North Etobicoke, identified by the province as a COVID-19 hot spot. The clinic, set to run for three weeks, is aiming to vaccinate some 15,000 people. 

Operated by the BAPS Charities in conjunction with the provincial health ministry as well as William Osler Health System and Toronto Public Health, the clinic is one of multiple COVID-19 vaccine sites the province says will be available for residents aged 18 and older in high risk settings.

More clinics like this, run through faith-based organizations, employers and other community organizations, will open in the coming weeks.

Education workers who work or live in hot-spot postal codes in Toronto and Peel will be provided with an eligibility letter from their local school board to access a shot, the province says. Those workers can schedule appointments through the provincial vaccine booking portal starting starting Tuesday.

The province also released criteria for employers interested in hosting on-site clinics. Those criteria include: being located in a hot spot community, either having had an outbreak or being at risk for one, having a plan for vaccinating employees who can't work from home as well as people in the local community.

Just how 'simple' is it to get vaccinated?

A team from Humber River Hospital administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the TARIC Centre, Toronto and Region Islamic Congregation, on Apr. 7, 2021, as part of a community outreach program to get seniors vaccinated at their place of worship. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ford's claim that booking a COVID-19 vaccine is simple is not true.

Here's a look at how complex the situation is:

  • If you're 60-plus, you can book at a mass vaccination site or pharmacy. This should be relatively straightforward.
  • If you're 55-plus, you can book through a pharmacy if there is one offering vaccines nearby. This can be trickier in many areas.
  • If you're 50-plus in a COVID-19 hot spot — and you'll have to search to figure out if your postal code is in fact a hot spot — you can go to a mass vaccination site. 
  • Those under 50 in hot spots can now qualify, too, but you can't book through the provincial system. Instead, you'll have to search for a mobile or pop-up clinic. Others under 50 who are eligible in Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout — like education workers or others deemed a priority — can book but will also need to bring paperwork. 

There are tens of thousands of people living in COVID-19 hot spots and it's clear the province will not be able to vaccinate all of them immediately. On Tuesday, officials confirmed the province doesn't even have enough vaccine supply to give child care workers (who remain at work despite the stay-at-home order) their first doses.

Further, the province only decided last week to focus on hot spots, marking a major shift in its vaccine strategy.

Test positivity tops 10% for 1st time

Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 3,670 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, as the test positivity rate logged by labs topped 10 per cent for the first time and total admissions to hospitals and ICUs climbed to new pandemic highs. 

According to the Ministry of Health, there are 1,822 people with COVID-19 in Ontario's hospitals. Of those, 626 are being treated in intensive care units for COVID-related illnesses and 422 require a ventilator.

Hospitalizations in the province previously peaked at 1,701 on January 12, based on the ministry's data.

Elliott said yesterday that the province is exploring how to boost hospital capacity to cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients, particularly in Toronto and surrounding regions. Hospitals have already begun ramping down non-emergency procedures, inevitably adding to a surgical backlog that already stands at more than 245,000 from earlier waves of the pandemic. 

Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, also known as SickKids, announced yesterday that it would accept up to 50 pediatric patients from 14 other hospitals in the GTA in a bid to create space for more adult COVID-19 patients at those facilities. The pediatric units at those 14 hospitals are effectively closed for the time being, with some specific exceptions.

Just last week, SickKids opened an eight-bed intensive care unit for younger adults, up to a max of about 40 years old. The president and CEO of SickKids, Dr. Ronald Cohn, told CBC News that as of last night, the temporary unit is at capacity.

Cohn added that it's the first time in its history that the hospital has had to accept adult patients.

"We actually went through our archives to check if this had ever happened, and it is in fact an unprecedented situation," Cohn said, adding an assurance that care for children at the hospital will not suffer as a result.

WATCH | Patients, front-line hospital staff battle COVID-19 in a busy Toronto ICU:

Inside some of Canada's hardest-hit hospitals in the 3rd wave of COVID-19

2 years ago
Duration 6:36
More patients are fighting for their lives in Ontario ICUs than at any previous point in the pandemic. CBC News goes inside Toronto’s Scarborough Health Network to see the impact.

Late this morning, the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) announced that it too would expand its ICU capacity from seven to 12 beds to make room for younger adult patients from other hospitals in and around Ottawa. 

In a statement posted online, CHEO president and CEO Alex Munter said the move reflects the seriousness of the third wave of COVID-19 gripping the province. The statement added that CHEO would only accept adult patient transfer once all other hospitals in the region have reached capacity.

About 96,000 vaccine doses administered yesterday

Meanwhile, public health units also recorded the deaths of 15 more people with COVID-19, pushing the official toll to 7,582.

The new cases reported today include:

  • 1,016 in Toronto
  • 613 in Peel
  • 519 in York Region
  • 214 in Ottawa
  • 196 in Durham Region
  • 161 in Hamilton
  • 157 in Halton Region
  • 121 in Waterloo Region
  • 103 in Niagara Region
  • 102 in Simcoe-Muskoka

Labs completed 42,167 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a provincewide positivity rate of 10.3 per cent, a new single-day high since Ontario started reporting the measure in April 2020.

The seven-day average of daily cases rose again to 3,868, also a new high.

Public health units administered 95,962 doses of COVID-19 vaccine yesterday, the Ministry of Health says. It's the third consecutive day the province has failed to hit the 100,000 doses benchmark set by officials last week. Ontario is currently averaging about 97,500 doses per day, officials said during a media-only briefing Tuesday morning.

You can read the full briefing presentation at the bottom of this story.

The vaccine task force said that there is currently capacity to give up to 150,000 shots per day, though the province has not come close to that figure to date.

Officials attribute the current pace of vaccinations to a dearth in new supply. The province has administered just over 82 per cent of the 4,031,325 doses of vaccines it has received from the federal government thus far.

Premier Doug Ford has set a target of getting at least one dose to 40 per cent of all adults in the province by the end of the current stay-at-home order, which is set to expire near of the end of this month,

At the briefing, officials said delays in shipments of the Moderna vaccine could potentially compromise Ford's goal, though right now it remains achievable.

Officials also confirmed that many child-care workers will likely not be eligible to receive a first dose of vaccine until about mid-May, unless they get it sooner through a different eligibility requirement such as living in a hot spot or having a high-risk medical condition.

The opposition NDP had called for child-care workers to be prioritized immediately, as child-care centres are slated to remain open through Ontario's current shutdown and stay-at-home order.

Read the full presentation from the vaccine task force:

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With files from Lucas Powers and The Canadian Press