Ontario detects 36 cases of COVID-19 variant first identified in India all within 'last few days'

Ontario has detected 36 cases of the B1617 COVID-19 variant first identified in India, the province's public health agency says.

Province sees 4,505 more COVID-19 cases, vaccine appointments open to pregnant people

Health-care workers prepare to test passengers as they arrive at Toronto's Pearson airport on Feb. 1. Public Health Ontario said Friday it has detected 36 cases of the B1617 variant first identified in India. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Ontario has detected 36 cases of the B1617 variant first identified in India, the province's public health agency said Friday.

Public Health Ontario says six of the cases were detected through its genomics surveillance program and related to international travel. The other 30 cases were detected through Ontario's COVID-19 airport and land border screening program, with testing done at the national microbiology lab in Winnipeg.

"All of theses cases were identified in the last few days," the agency said.

Meanwhile, Alberta identified its first instance of the B1617 variant on Tuesday, with Quebec's Mauricie–Centre-du-Québec region confirming its first case on Wednesday. 

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist and member of Ontario's COVID-19 task force, said earlier this afternoon that a Toronto hospital had sent two samples for testing that doctors believed could be the variant. 

Bogoch said it will take a few days for labs to confirm what strain of the virus is present in the samples. 

Yesterday, the federal government banned direct passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days in a bid to reduce any further transmission of the coronavirus by travellers coming from those countries. India reported 314,000 more cases of the illness today.

The move followed calls from the provincial government to tighten restrictions on international flights amid the third wave of the pandemic currently gripping Ontario.

News of the variant in Ontario comes as the province reported another 4,505 cases of COVID-19 and 34 more deaths linked to the illness on Friday, as the province said pregnant people can now book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.

That's the most new cases on a single day in a little over a week, however it is unclear how much provincial data issues with the numbers in Peel Region may have artificially inflated Friday's total.

The region confirmed 1,232 cases in the provincial update, far higher than its seven-day average of about 783 and more than double yesterday's count of 507. In an email, a spokesperson said the conspicuously large number is "partially attributable to an issue with the provincial lab system but also the high case volume that we are seeing in Peel."

The new cases reported today also include:

  • 1,257 in Toronto.
  • 412 in York Region.
  • 247 in Ottawa.
  • 224 in Durham Region.
  • 179 in Niagara Region.
  • 144 in Halton Region.
  • 135 in Hamilton.

Meanwhile, on Friday alone, 26 Ontario patients critically ill with COVID-19 are being transferred because of ICU availability, according to a hospital official. Of those, 17 are from either the Scarborough Health Network or the William Osler Health System.

The patients are being taken on by hospitals in Ottawa, Windsor, Stratford, Owen Sound, Belleville, Brockville, Kitchener, St. Catharines, Hamilton and Oakville.

Meanwhile, the seven-day average of cases fell to 4,132 today, a third consecutive drop. Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said yesterday that the growth rate of new infections could be plateauing, but added it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions.

The province's current stay-at-home order went into effect on April 8 and may be contributing to slowing transmissions of the coronavirus.

As of yesterday, there were 818 people with COVID-related critical illnesses being treated in intensive care units. Of those, 593 required a ventilator to breathe. Both figures are new pandemic highs for Ontario.

Critical Care Services Ontario, a government agency that compiles internal reports for hospitals and health organizations, said that 70 more patients with COVID-19 were admitted to ICUs yesterday alone. 

Moreover, Ornge Air Ambulance said it transported 80 people yesterday — the most on a single day so far this year — to open up critical care space in the Greater Toronto Area. 

The 34 additional deaths push the official toll to 7,863. The seven-day average of daily deaths rose to 28.4, a new high for the third wave of the pandemic.

Emma Willemsma, who is pregnant, gets her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a pop-up clinic run by Humber River Hospital at the Luso Canadian Charitable Society in Toronto on Friday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Pregnant people moved up in vaccine rollout

Those who are pregnant are now a priority for vaccines in the province. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said that the change was made in light of "emerging data on the increased risk of severe illness" for pregnant people.

Pregnant individuals were initially part of the "at-risk" category of Phase 2 of Ontario's vaccine rollout plan, which meant they could have been waiting until about mid-May for a first shot. 

They have now been moved to the "highest risk" tier, the Ministry of Health said.

WATCH | Bogoch explains higher risk for pregnant women:

Prioritizing pregnant individuals for vaccination 'smart move,' specialist says

2 years ago
Duration 5:28
Ontario has moved pregnancy to the highest risk category of its Phase 2 COVID-19 vaccination rollout plan, a move infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch calls 'the moral and ethical thing to do.'

On Friday, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) also issued a recommendation that the AstraZeneca vaccine be administered to those 30 years of age and older.

But with additional shipments of that vaccine not expected until May, Ontario says it will continue to administer AstraZeneca to individuals 40 and up for now, in pharmacies and primary care settings.

Whether a pregnant person should book through the province or through their local health unit depends upon whether the health unit is using the centralized call centre or not.

"We look forward to receiving future shipments of AstraZeneca, which will allow us to begin vaccinating more Ontarians in younger age groups," said Alexandra Hilkene, press secretary for the health minister.

As for those who are pregnant, the Ministry of Health noted that no letter from a health-care provider is needed. Pregnant individuals are OK to receive their second dose at the 16-week interval, the ministry said.

The province's rollout plan, posted online, will be updated in the coming days to reflect the change.

A study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on Thursday that included 2,100 women in 18 countries around the world found that pregnant individuals who contracted COVID-19 were 20 times more likely to die with the illness than those who did not.

The researchers also reported that the babies of pregnant individuals who got COVID-19 and had symptoms were at greater risk of neonatal complications, mostly due to premature birth.

And on Wednesday, the preliminary results of a report of 35,000 U.S. women who received either the Moderna or Pfizer shots while pregnant showed their rates of miscarriage, premature births and other complications were comparable to those observed in published reports on pregnant women before the pandemic.

Public health units collectively administered 133,872 doses of vaccines yesterday, the Ministry of Health said. As of last night, 355,208 people in Ontario had gotten both shots.

The province has used 4,400,674, or just under 84 per cent, of the 5,248,345 doses of vaccines it has received to date.

WATCH | Tam's advice for pregnant women:

Dr. Tam offers advice to pregnant women on the COVID-19 vaccine

2 years ago
Duration 2:09
Canada's Chief Public Health Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam shares her advice to pregnant women on getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Nearly one-quarter of the province's total population has now had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Pending supply, public health units are on track to meet Premier Doug Ford's goal of vaccinating 40 per cent of all Ontario adults by May 6.

This morning, provincial health officials confirmed the first case of a rare but serious type of blood clot following a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Williams said in a statement that the patient is a man in his 60s who had received a first dose of the vaccine. 

"The patient has received treatment and is recovering at home. Additional details will not be publicly released to protect the patient's privacy," Williams said.

Hours later, Ontario saw its second case of this condition after a man in his 60s received the AstraZeneca vaccine in Hamilton. 

"The patient has received treatment and continues to receive care in hospital," said Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, in an email.

"While these serious reactions remain extremely rare, we have a robust process in place to monitor for any adverse events and have taken steps to ensure that these events are identified and treated as quickly as possible," Williams added.

Canadian health authorities currently put the risk of experiencing a blood clot after the vaccine as between 1 in 100,000 and 1 in 250,000. Researchers need more time and data before they will be able to narrow down the precise rate at which the clots are occurring.

Last weekend, Ontario lowered the age of eligibility for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine from 55 to 40, sparking a sharp uptick in people opting to take the vaccine.

With files from Lucas Powers, Sabrina Jonas and Shanifa Nasser


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