Ontario activates 'emergency brake' in Thunder Bay, Simcoe-Muskoka as York readies to administer vaccines
New cases reported today are the most on a single day in about two weeks
Ontario announced Friday afternoon that it is activating an "emergency brake" in Thunder Bay and Simcoe-Muskoka, sending the regions back into lockdown to "immediately interrupt transmission and contain community spread."
The two regions will move into the grey lockdown level of Ontario's COVID-19 restriction plan effective 12:01 a.m. Monday, March 1.
"This is due to a rapid worsening in key public health indicators, as well as a high presence of variants in the Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit that continue to increase — the highest in the province. As of February 23, 2021, there has been a total of 170 confirmed cases of a variant of concern in this region," the province said in a news release.
Seven other regions will also be moving into new levels at the same time. They include:
- Red-control: Niagara Region Public Health.
- Orange-restrict: Chatham-Kent Public Health; Middlesex-London Health Unit; and Southwestern Public Health.
- Yellow-protect: Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit; and Huron Perth Public Health.
- Green-prevent: Grey Bruce Health Unit.
Toronto, Peel and North Bay Parry Sound will remain under a stay-at-home order until at least Monday, March 8.
All other regions will remain in their current level for now, the province said.
1,258 new cases — the most in nearly 2 weeks
Ontario reported another 1,258 cases of COVID-19 on Friday — the most on a single day in nearly two weeks — as officials hailed Health Canada's approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine as a "huge deal" for the province's immunization effort.
The new cases include 362 in Toronto, 274 in Peel Region and 104 in York Region.
York Region announced Friday it is ready to vaccinate residents 80 years of age and older by appointment. Eligible residents can book appointments online beginning Monday, March 1 at 8 a.m.
The region will administer vaccines at Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital in Vaughan, Cornell Community Centre in Markham and Ray Twinney Recreation Complex in Newmarket.
"This is a very positive step forward. We are moving aggressively to vaccinate as many as possible within the province's identified priority populations as vaccine supply becomes available," said Dr. Karim Kurji, York Region's medical officer of health.
"We are being as nimble as we can using different delivery models depending on the supplies of vaccines and the groups we need to immunize."
Other public health units that saw double-digit increases include:
- Waterloo Region: 69
- Hamilton: 64
- Ottawa: 52
- Durham Region: 42
- Thunder Bay: 42
- Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 35
- Halton Region: 32
- Windsor-Essex: 31
- Simcoe Muskoka: 25
- Niagara Region: 19
- Brant County: 17
- Eastern Ontario: 11
- Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge: 10
- Renfrew County: 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.)
Ontario's lab network completed 64,049 tests for SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a test positivity rate of 2.3 per cent.
The seven-day average of daily cases climbed to 1,114, marking a sixth straight day of increases.
The Ministry of Education also reported 101 school-related cases: 89 students and 12 staff members. There are currently 18 schools closed due to the illness, about 0.4 per cent of those in the province.
According to the Ministry of Health, there has been a total of 477 cases caused by a virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, 28 more than in yesterday's update. Another 14 cases have been linked to a variant first found in South Africa, up three from yesterday, and two total cases have screened positive for the variant identified in Brazil.
Variants of concern continue to spread quickly in Ontario, updated modelling presented yesterday shows, and are projected to likely make up 40 per cent of the province's cases by the second week of March.
Ontario's COVID-19 science table said the next few weeks will be "critical" for understanding the impact of these variants, and that there "is a period of remaining risk" before the pandemic likely hits a lull in the summer months.
Meanwhile, public health units recorded the deaths of 28 more people with the illness, bringing Ontario's official toll to 6,944.
AstraZeneca approval could accelerate vaccines rollout
The news comes as Health Canada gave a green light for use of a third COVID-19 vaccine.
"Basically it means we can accelerate our vaccine programs from coast to coast. It also means we have a much more versatile vaccine," said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician based in Toronto.
The AstraZeneca vaccine only requires conventional refrigeration and is relatively stable, Bogoch added, meaning it could be a prime candidate for immunization efforts by primary care providers and mobile clinics.
"Of course there's still a lot of questions about who will have access to it, when we're going to get it, through which route we'll get it. But at the end of the day, we have access to more vaccine than we thought," Bogoch told CBC's News Network.
WATCH | Task force member on how AstraZeneca vaccine could be used:
Ontario's immunization strategy has been the focus of scrutiny this week, after the task force announced that an online portal for booking appointments wouldn't be operational until mid-March — weeks after several other provinces. Furthermore, the co-chair of the task force, retired general Rick Hillier, wouldn't offer specifics on when people under 60 years old (who are not essential workers) might expect to get their first dose of a vaccine.
Some jurisdictions, notably France, have restricted the AstraZeneca vaccine to people under the age of 65 despite the World Health Organization's insistence that the product is safe and effective for all age groups.
Health Canada approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for Canadians aged 18 and older, and said it has an efficacy rate of about 62.1 per cent.
While the efficacy rate is important, Bogoch said, more crucial is the vaccine's ability to significantly reduce the probability of a severe COVID-19 infection and hospitalization in those who receive it.
Record-high shots given out yesterday
Speaking to CBC Radio's Metro Morning today, Hillier called the approval "wonderful news" but cautioned that provincial officials will need to wait for more instructions from Health Canada before they can say definitely how it will change Ontario's rollout plan.
"It's a third weapon in the fight against COVID-19," Hillier said, alluding to the two other vaccines — manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna — currently being administered in Canada.
The federal government has secured access to 20 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The province said it administered 21,805 doses of vaccines yesterday, a new single-day high. A total of 258,014 people have received both doses of a vaccine.
Prioritize vaccine rollout by age and neighbourhood, experts say
The science advisory table says that prioritizing COVID-19 vaccinations on both age and neighbourhood could prevent thousands of cases and reduce the number of deaths linked to the illness moving forward.
The group detailed its advice in a new report released today.
The table said the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on older adults and residents of lower income and racialized neighbourhoods, mainly in urban centres.
Targeting those residents for vaccination first could minimize deaths, illness and hospitalizations across Ontario, the report suggested.
Implementing the strategy would not interfere with the ongoing vaccine rollout, but could instead help guide the upcoming mass distribution of shots to the general population, it continued.
With files from The Canadian Press