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Ontario to begin bookings for AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine this week, health minister says

Some Ontarians will be able to book appointments for a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine starting later this week, the health minister says, as 194,500 doses became available to the province Tuesday.

Public health units reported another 1,185 cases of COVID-19 Tuesday morning

The province says 31,047 doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered yesterday. Meanwhile, health officials in Toronto say that three of the city's nine planned mass vaccination sites will begin giving out shots next week. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Some Ontarians will be able to book appointments for a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine starting later this week, the health minister says, as 194,500 doses became available to the province Tuesday.

Speaking during question period at Queen's Park, Christine Elliott said a list of pharmacies that will be administering the AstraZeneca vaccine should be publicly available on Wednesday.

The pharmacies are part of a pilot project to get COVID-19 vaccines to the general public. The project will be run in three public health units: Toronto, Kingston and Windsor-Essex. 

Last week, the CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association said more than 300 pharmacies have been identified as possible participants.

Elliott said that agreements with some individual pharmacies are still being finalized, but that online bookings are set to begin Friday. 

The AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for use by Health Canada at the end of February. The National Advisory Committee on Immunizations (NACI) subsequently recommended that it be used only for adults aged 18 to 64, despite evidence from other jurisdictions that suggests it can be safely given to seniors.

Ontario's COVID-19 vaccine task force has said that, for now, the AstraZeneca vaccine will be targeted toward people 60 to 64 years old in the province.

With regard to the initial shipment, time is of the essence. About 114,000 of the 194,500 doses currently available to Ontario are set to expire on April 1. Elliott said today none of those doses will be wasted.

"We have been ready to receive the AstraZeneca vaccines and we will be able to deliver them before expiry," she said in response to questions from Liberal MPP John Fraser. 

Elliott added that once shipments of vaccines ramp up in coming weeks, Ontario will be able to quadruple its capacity in "very short order." For reference, the province administered 31, 047 shots on Monday.

Some health units won't use Ontario booking system

Some Ontario public health units will continue to use their own vaccination booking systems even after a provincial portal becomes available next week.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones says approximately six units, including Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph, will stick with their own systems.

She says the rest will merge with the province's online portal or use a combination of both systems.

Several public health units have started using their own booking systems to make vaccination appointments for eligible residents in recent weeks in the absence of a provincial system. 

Proof of pre-existing illness not required for shot

Meanwhile, Ontarians won't be asked to provide proof of their pre-existing health conditions to access a COVID-19 vaccine during the second phase of the province's immunization effort, Elliot said yesterday.

The health minister said she believes most people will come to clinics when they are permitted and not take advantage of the honour system. Vaccinations in the broader public are expected to ramp up in the coming weeks following the approval of a fourth vaccine and larger shipments coming into the country.

Vaccines will be offered starting in April to people with specific health conditions, like organ transplant recipients, those living with obesity and those receiving treatments that suppress the immune system.

Elliott said local public health units will screen people as they arrive at the clinics and may be able to check with a person's family physician, but that will not be mandatory.

"We haven't run into very many of those situations," she said. "People are following the rules, they are coming in at the appropriate time, they're being very patient, and they want to make sure that people who are the most at risk are going to be given their vaccinations first."

A spokeswoman for Elliott later noted that many individuals with pre-existing health conditions may not use the province's upcoming vaccine booking portal or have appointments at mass vaccination sites.

"Most of these vaccinations will be administered through other channels, such as specialty clinics or through their existing health care providers who already have the individual's health records on hand," Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement.

1,185 new cases of COVID-19

Ontario reported another 1,185 cases of COVID-19 and the deaths of six more people with the illness on Tuesday.

The new cases include 343 in Toronto and 235 in Peel Region, where stay-at-home orders were lifted yesterday as the health units moved into the grey "lockdown" phase of the province's restrictions system.

York Region logged 105 further cases, while the following public health units saw double-digit increases:

  • Hamilton: 81
  • Halton Region: 48
  • Waterloo Region: 46
  • Ottawa: 45
  • Thunder Bay: 39
  • Simcoe Muskoka: 30
  • Windsor-Essex: 30
  • Durham Region: 25
  • Sudbury: 24
  • Niagara Region: 22
  • Middlesex-London: 21
  • Lambton: 14
  • Chatham-Kent: 11
  • Eastern Ontario: 10
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 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.)

The seven-day average of new daily cases in the province climbed to 1,187.

Ontario's lab network completed 33,264 test samples for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a test positivity rate of 3.7 per cent — the highest it has been on a single day in two weeks.

Labs also confirmed, through whole genomic sequencing, another 29 cases of the virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, bringing the total in Ontario so far to 908.

The per cent positivity of positive samples screened for variants of concern continued its overall upward trend.

On Sunday, the most recent day for which data is available, 861 positive tests were analyzed for the tell-tale mutation that indicates a possible variant of concern. Of those, 261, or 32.2 per cent, had the mutation. Those samples are then sent for whole genomic sequencing, a more technically intensive process that can pinpoint which variant of concern is present.

The Ministry of Education reported 263 more school-related cases that were confirmed from last Friday afternoon through Monday afternoon. A total of 209 were students, while 45 were staff members and nine were people who were not identified.

Thirty-four schools, or about 0.7 per cent of all publicly-funded schools in Ontario, are currently closed due to the illness, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, both the number of people with COVID-19 in hospitals and in intensive care ticked up, to 689 and 290, respectively. Of those being treated in ICUs, 184 required a ventilator to breathe, according to the Ministry of Health.

The six additional deaths in today's report push the official toll to 7,083.

A total of 276,193 people have now received both shots of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

With files from The Canadian Press

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