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Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Major-General Dany Fortin join other members of the vaccine distribution task force as the Canadian Armed Forces and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) hold a rehearsal of concept drill for the coronavirus vaccine for rollout at the PHAC headquarters in Ottawa on Dec. 11, 2020.

POOL/Reuters

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is urging Canadians to reduce their in-person contacts as new modelling shows COVID-19 cases are continuing to grow and the country readies for its first vaccinations.

The initial batch of 30,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is set to arrive in Canada beginning Monday, after passing through three countries including the United States. But even as provinces prepare to vaccinate health care workers and the most vulnerable populations, Mr. Trudeau said now is not the time for Canadians to let down their guards.

“Vaccinations will help end the pandemic. But right now, our fight against COVID-19 is far from over,” Mr. Trudeau said Friday at a climate change announcement.

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“There is no other way – we must reduce our in-person contacts right now. A vaccine in a week or in a month won’t help you if you get COVID-19 today.”

When will Canadians get COVID-19 vaccines? The federal and provincial rollout plans so far

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

New modelling released on Friday anticipates the COVID-19 death toll could hit nearly 15,000 by Christmas Day, while case counts are projected to climb to as many as 12,000 a day by the start of January. Hospitalizations are also on the rise.

Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, said the country remains on a “rapid growth trajectory,” although the predictions are not nearly as dire as they were a month ago.

In an update on Friday, federal health officials warned that all large provinces need to strengthen their COVID-19 responses “now” to stem the rise in infections.

Infections continue to climb in the six provinces west of the Atlantic region, with rates rising precipitously in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, according to federal data.

But Dr. Tam noted the forecast for the new year isn’t quite as grim as it looked two weeks ago, saying stricter measures in Manitoba and British Columbia appear to have helped slow the spread of the virus.

“The forecast number of cases for early January is lower than two weeks ago because more stringent controls in B.C. and Manitoba appear to be starting to control the epidemic there,” she said.

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However, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan continue to have the highest infection rates, particularly in urban centres, but rural and remote communities are being affected as well, Dr. Tam said.

In November, the Public Health Agency of Canada released pandemic modelling that showed the year could end with more than 20,000 cases per day – double the number Ottawa says would put the health system at risk. Canada has averaged 6,500 cases a day over the past week.

The first batches of the Pfizer vaccine will be sent from Belgium to Cologne, Germany, on Friday night, and then flown to a UPS distribution hub in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday. From there, they will make their way to 14 sites across Canada on Monday and Tuesday, according to Kate Gutmann, who leads the UPS health care and vaccine division in Atlanta. The vaccines will clear customs in Canada, she said.

The vaccines, which must be kept in ultra-cold -70 C temperatures, are stored in Pfizer’s custom packaging that has them surrounded by dry ice. UPS also provides a sensor that tells the company of any temperature fluctuations throughout the journey, which is monitored by a command centre in the Netherlands, Ms. Gutmann said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

“We not only know exactly where it is, but every package, we also know the temperature within the package,” said Ms. Gutmann.

“We carry high value goods – and I’m talking very high value goods – every night and have for decades...even diamond shipments don’t have the technology I’m describing.”

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Canada’s federal government had said an attempt from the White House to put Americans at the front of the COVID-19 vaccine line won’t affect shipments to Canada. U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday that will “ensure that Americans have priority access to COVID-19 vaccines developed in the United States or procured by the United States Government.” But UPS officials said it is their understanding that the executive order will not affect the Pfizer vaccine deliveries to Canada.

Ontario Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones on Friday referred to the vaccines as “liquid gold,” and said the province has done due diligence to ensure the two hospital sites in Ottawa and Toronto that will be receiving the vaccines first are secured. Health care workers in long-term care will be the first people in Ontario to receive vaccinations next week.

Retired general Rick Hillier, chair of Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, said he expects the vaccines to arrive Monday, although if they are sent early, he said the province will be ready to receive them.

Mr. Hillier said the province has thought about the fact that the vaccines have to pass through the United States into Canada, and “realize we cannot control what happens from there.”

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu says the COVID-19 vaccine doses headed to Canada will be divided among provinces and territories on a per capita basis. She says the government is setting aside an additional allotment of vaccine doses for First Nations people living on reserve, where health care is a federal responsibility. The Canadian Press

With a report from The Canadian Press

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