Ontario to reopen borders with Quebec, Manitoba as 2nd-dose bookings open in delta hot spots

Ontario will reopen its borders with Quebec and Manitoba this week, the government announced Monday, as the province logged 447 new cases of COVID-19 and the deaths of four more people with the illness.

14.6% of Ontarians aged 12 and older have now gotten both shots of a COVID-19 vaccine

Restrictions on non-essential travel between Ontario and Quebec have been in place since April 19, 2021. (CBC)

Ontario will reopen its borders with Quebec and Manitoba this week, the government announced Monday, as the province logged 447 new cases of COVID-19.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said in a statement that Ontario will not extend the order that restricted non-essential travel between the provinces. It is set to expire at 12:01 a.m. ET on Wednesday.

Those entering Ontario "must continue to follow the public health measures in place in the province," Jones said.

Limits on travel have been in place since April 19, when the third wave of the pandemic was at its peak in Ontario.

4 more COVID-linked deaths

Today's case count is down from last Monday, when the province logged 525 new infections. 

It comes as labs completed just 13,588 tests, the fewest on a single day in more than a year, and Public Health Ontario reported a province positivity rate of 2.8 per cent — the lowest on a Monday since mid-October. 

Because testing levels are cyclical in Ontario, its best to compare the same days of the week.

Last Monday, the province saw a 3.6 per cent positivity rate on 15,177 total tests, suggesting that the important indicator continues to decline week over week.

The seven-day average of daily cases fell to 503, a level not seen in the province since late September 2020.

The number of total active infections stands at about 5,374. During the height of the third wave of the pandemic, there were nearly 43,000 active cases in the province.

That said, Ontario stops counting an infection as "active" after two weeks. That means the figure does not necessarily reflect the real number of people who are experiencing COVID-related symptoms.

As of Sunday, there were 409 people with COVID-related illnesses being treated in intensive care units. Of those, 268 needed a ventilator to breathe.

Notably, this morning Ontario reported more COVID-19 patients in ICUs than the total number of patients in hospitals. That's because some hospitals do not submit results from their daily censuses on the weekends, meaning the total figure reported on Mondays is almost always an underrepresentation of the actual number. 

The additional deaths push the official toll to 8,961. The seven-day average of deaths declined to roughly 13.

During a news conference today, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, associate medical officer of health, said the "number of hospitalizations and ICU admissions continues to show steady improvement."

The R-effective number, which shows the rate of spread, is down to 0.72.

"That is really amazing," Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said. "And it's reducing day after day because of the impact of vaccinations and ongoing public health measures."

Yaffe responded to questions about confusion over the ever-changing information presented by the province.

"It's changing consistently and that can cause some confusion," she said. "I'd say if people are unsure and want more information, they should call their local health unit or primary care provider."

Williams added that the public had to "stay tuned and pay attention" as the science and information regarding the virus and vaccines keeps updating.

Vaccine rollout ahead of schedule

Public health units collectively administered another 135,574 doses of COVID-19 vaccines yesterday, the most-ever on a Sunday. 

About 64.1 per cent of Ontario's total population has now had at least one dose, while 14.6 per cent of residents aged 12 and older have received both shots.

Importantly, more than 74 per cent of Ontarians 18 and above have gotten a first shot — above the 70 per cent threshold the government has set as a main criterion for moving into Phase 2 of the province's reopening plan.

Another key benchmark is at least 20 per cent of adults fully immunized against the illness. Given the current trajectory of second doses — which have begun to outpace doses being used for first shots — Ontario could reach the target by the end of this week.

The province entered Phase 1 of the reopening plan on June 11. It is currently scheduled to remain in Phase 1 until at least July 2.

Meanwhile, more Ontarians will be able to book an accelerated second dose of COVID-19 vaccine starting today.

Ontario anticipates that more than four million doses of COVID-19 vaccines will have arrived throughout June, with millions more scheduled to come in July. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Those who received a first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine can now book their second after eight weeks. The Ontario government had previously set a minimum wait time of 12 weeks for people who took a first dose of AstraZeneca.

They can choose whether to get a second dose of AstraZeneca, or switch to an mRNA vaccine made by Pfizer or Moderna.

Similarly, people who live in one of seven regions where the delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading and who received their first shot on or before May 9 can also now make an appointment for their second dose.

As the province has allowed mixing vaccine doses, Williams said he still sees people insisting on AstraZeneca as their second dose, while a large number are moving over to mRNA vaccines.

The strategy is focused on Toronto, Peel, Halton, Porcupine, Waterloo, York and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph.

Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table estimates that the delta variant of concern — first identified in India and thought to be more transmissible than previous variants and more resilient against currently available vaccines — accounts for about 40 per cent of all new cases in the province.

While concern about an uptick in cases remains, Williams added that it's more concerning for unvaccinated people.

He added there are senior adults being hospitalized with the virus who are unvaccinated, and urged residents to get the shot.

"We know from our experts that transmission is higher, and health impacts like hospitalization or ICU admission on unvaccinated people is higher."

Yaffe said data from clinical trials shows that one dose is 33 to 48 per cent effective at preventing infection from the delta variant.

But two doses offers much higher protection against the delta variant. Two doses of AstraZeneca are 60 to 70 per cent effective, and two doses of mRNA vaccines are 88 to 90 per cent effective at preventing infection.

Limited appointments

On social media, people in Peel reported long wait times and difficulty finding appointments for a second shot within the region, with the province's central booking system pointing them to available spots in neighbouring areas.

Speaking at Queen's Park, Health Minister Christine Elliott conceded that a limited number of appointments were available and urged residents to try again. 

She said she expects more spots to open up later today or at some point this week.

While the province has moved up the chance to book a second shot for some in the delta variant hot spots, it opted not to allocate additional doses to the same public health units. 

Playing down concerns about demand outstripping supply in places like Peel, Elliott said last week that health units could receive extra vaccines once they use up what is on hand.

Williams noted that some people have had difficulty booking appointments in high-risk areas.

"That's a challenge, but it's a terrific response," he said, noting it means more and more Ontarians are seeking their second shot.

"With the volume of vaccine, please sign back in again," he said. "We're really ramping up the supply."

Return-to-play plan for pro and elite amateur sports leagues

Also today, the province announced a return-to-play plan for professional and elite amateur leagues allowing them to hold non-contact practice and dry-land training.

Teams and leagues will be allowed to resume games as soon as August, although there is currently no plan to allow spectators.

The Canadian Football League and Ontario Hockey League are the most affected by the decision, having missed an entire season because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Toronto Argonauts, and Ottawa Redblacks all have training camps scheduled to begin in early July

On the province's plan for a return of professional and elite amateur sports, Williams said the possibility of fans returning to games is being discussed but largely depends on a number of health factors, primarily the vaccination rate.

With files from The Canadian Press