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Anti-lockdown and anti-mask protesters take part in a rally outside the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on April 12, 2021. The Alberta government has been granted a pre-emptive court injunction against a planned protest.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

The Alberta government says it has taken legal action to stop any planned protests of COVID-19 public health orders, including one at a central Alberta cafe that was closed for not following the rules.

On Wednesday, Alberta Health Services closed the Whistle Stop Cafe in the hamlet of Mirror until its owner can demonstrate the ability to comply with health restrictions.

The agency says it had received more than 400 complaints against the business since January.

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Alberta Health Services says it has been granted a pre-emptive court injunction against a planned protest by the cafe owner and supporters.

It says it also has received a court order against all other organizers of advertised illegal gatherings and rallies breaching COVID-19 public health orders.

There is an ad promoting a rally this weekend at the cafe in Mirror called “The Save Alberta Campout Protest.”

The ad says the event is a response to “harmful restrictions” imposed by Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, and “the United Conservative Party caucus’ ongoing attack on the rights and freedoms of the people of Alberta.”

Alberta Health Services says the court order restrains the cafe owner and others from organizing, promoting and attending the event.

“AHS has taken this step due to the ongoing risk to Albertans created by those breaching COVID-19 public health restrictions and advertising social gatherings which, if held, breach current and active CMOH Orders and pose a risk to public health,” the agency said in a release Thursday.

“AHS strongly condemns the intentional disobeying of COVID-19 public health restrictions,”

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The agency says with COVID-19 cases increasing in the province, including the more easily transmitted and potentially more severe variants, there is urgent need to minimize spread to protect all Albertans.

Last weekend, hundreds of people gathered near Bowden, also in central Alberta, for a pre-advertised maskless “No More Lockdowns” protest rodeo.

Days later, the premier announced stronger restrictions and doubled fines for scofflaws

Quebec to fully vaccinate youth aged 12 to 17 by September

Quebeckers 12 to 17 years old will be offered a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of June and will be fully vaccinated by the time they return to school in September, the province’s health minister said Thursday.

Christian Dubé said he’s waiting for formal guidelines from Quebec’s immunization committee before announcing details of the plan, but it will likely include vaccinating teens at their schools.

“We’re so pleased with this news because it’s good for the people that will be vaccinated, and good for the population in general,” he told reporters in Quebec City. “We’re back to school in September, and this is behind us.”

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Daniel Paré, head of the province’s vaccine effort, said teens would be vaccinated in a “hybrid” model that will likely include both schools and vaccination centres, depending on the region. He said the province will prepare information sessions for parents before vaccinations begin.

Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 12 and up on Wednesday.

The province’s public health director said there were about 500,000 people in the 12-to-17 age group. Dr. Horacio Arruda urged teenagers to get the vaccine in order to be able to see their friends again and return to a normal life.

“I want to say to teenagers: please, get vaccinated, that’s the way to get liberty,” he said.

Dubé said the province recently crossed the milestone of vaccinating 40 per cent of the population with at least one dose. He said that beginning May 13, Quebec will begin offering electronic proof of vaccination.

Previously vaccinated people who want one will be sent a QR code by e-mail, he added.

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Arruda said the code could be useful for those who need to travel to countries that require proof of vaccination, and said it could help health officials verify a person’s vaccination history in the case of a future pandemic.

He said, however, the Quebec government was still analyzing the idea of a “vaccine passport” that would grant inoculated people access to certain spaces. “We’re not saying no, we’re saying we need to look at it,” Arruda said.

“There are practices, there are places that did it that had positive experiences, others that had negative elements, so what we want to do is to do it based on good evidence.”

The province lowered the age of vaccine eligibility to 35 from 40 on Thursday afternoon, and has promised to open appointments to all adults by mid-May.

Quebec reported 907 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and seven more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one in the previous 24 hours. Hospitalizations dropped by eight, to 580, and 144 people were in intensive care, a drop of eight.

Dubé said the situation in the province “is going in the right direction,” with case counts, hospitalizations and test positivity rates all on the decline.

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Montreal’s mayor said Thursday she’s hoping to get permission from public health authorities to allow the city’s restaurants to reopen outdoor patios at the beginning of June. Restaurant dining rooms in the city have been closed since last October, and Valérie Plante said business owners need a heads-up on when they might be able to reopen.

“Right now it’s been stable in Montreal, vaccination is going very well,” she said. “If it stays that way, it would be great to give an indication to restaurants and bars that they can open their [patios].”

Dubé partially brushed off her request, which he implied was based on a desire “to shake hands on a [patio] as opposed to in a closed area,” during the upcoming municipal election campaign.

He said Premier François Legault has promised to provide a step-by-step reopening plan in the coming weeks, which will include directives for restaurants.

Legault said Thursday morning the plan will be similar to the road map presented by the Saskatchewan government, which is based on vaccination rates, but Quebec’s could include other criteria, such as infection levels.

Canada may struggle to reach herd immunity, experts say

Health care workers walk through a hallway at Humber River Hospital's intensive care unit in Toronto on April 28, 2021.

COLE BURSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Herd immunity may not be reached in Canada but a return to life similar to that before COVID-19 is possible through immunization, experts say.

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Such immunity is achieved when enough people are immune to a virus, either through vaccinations or natural infections or a combination of both.

Prof. Paul Tupper of Simon Fraser University’s mathematics department said herd immunity is unlikely to happen with COVID-19 for a few reasons.

The virus is being transmitted worldwide, which means it is reintroduced in different places across borders and immunity through vaccination and infection doesn’t last permanently. The vaccines don’t seem to be completely effective against some of the new variants, he said.

“So, I think what is more likely to happen is that we end up in a situation like we have with seasonal flu,” Tupper said.

“We have to live with the flu, and I think something similar is going to happen with COVID.”

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

Canada vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered so far?

The level of immunity among the population also changes with the variants, especially the more transmissible strains, he said.

Sarah Otto, a University of British Columbia professor, said the disease’s reproductive rate is hard to pinpoint, which makes it difficult to establish a herd immunity target. Otto is an expert on the mathematical models of pandemic growth and control in the university’s zoology department.

The reproductive rate is the number of additional people infected by a single person with COVID-19, which has also changed because of the variants, she said.

Canada might also fall short of herd immunity because people can still get infected after vaccination, even if they are less likely to develop symptoms, she said.

“We don’t yet know how effective vaccines are at reducing transmission from person to person and that matters a lot,” Otto said.

Vaccinated people are getting fewer infections but those who do can still suffer severe symptoms, she said

“Before the pandemic, we didn’t have working vaccines for coronaviruses, so we don’t know exactly what the outcomes are going to be. It’s very unusual to have a disease with such wildly differing outcomes, with asymptomatic individuals and severely affected long haulers. How are vaccines going to change that mix? We don’t really know why the severe cases are so severe.”

Tupper said public health guidelines will change as more people get vaccinated.

“But the goal of eradicating COVID just does not appear to be realistic.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said vaccines can significantly reduce transmission rates, regardless of whether Canada reaches herd immunity.

“Some communities might have no transmission while other communities, even within the same province, might have some low levels of transmission and it’s all based on vaccine status,” he said.

“But regardless, we will achieve very, very low rates of transmission in our communities because of vaccination.”

Community level immunity is when a virus is not completely eliminated, he said.

“There may be some transmission of COVID-19 but sporadically with small outbreaks or with low levels of transmission, while most people are largely unaffected due to widespread vaccination.”

It had been suggested that herd immunity could be reached when about 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated, but now researchers don’t know what level of protection is required because of the variants.

Otto said there are more questions than answers at this point.

“With every partial answer we get two or three more questions. These are hard and tricky issues and I wish we were less uncertain, but that is the truth of the matter.”

Ontario reports 3,424 new cases and 26 additional deaths

Ontario is reporting 3,424 new cases of COVID-19 today and 26 more deaths linked to the virus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says there are 958 new cases in Toronto, 900 in Peel and 291 in York Region

She also says there are 175 new cases in Durham Region and 155 in Hamilton.

Am I eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine? The latest rules by province

The Ministry of Health says 1,964 people are hospitalized because of the novel coronavirus, with 877 in intensive care and 600 on a ventilator.

Ontario says that 141,038 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered since Wednesday’s report, for a total of more than 5.7 million.

Meanwhile, groups representing thousands of health-care workers say their members need to be prioritized for full immunization from COVID-19 as they work with patients hospitalized with the virus.

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, Canadian Union of Public Employees, and Service Employees International Union say they have asked the province to accelerate second doses for the workers but have received no commitment.

Ontario says it's on track to administer first COVID-19 vaccine doses to 65 per cent of adults in the province by the end of May. The province said last week that all adults would be eligible to book a shot starting the week of May 24. The Canadian Press

Health-care workers were amongst the initial groups to be prioritized for a first dose of the shot.

Since Ontario’s vaccine effort began, however, the province has extended dosing intervals for COVID-19 shots from 21 days to four months due to supply shortages.

The group representing the health-care workers say the government needs to ensure the employees get second doses soon because they remain at risk when working with patients who have more transmissible COVID-19 variants.

A spokeswoman for the health minister says as the province receives more vaccines it may eventually be able to shorten the dosing interval for all Ontarians.

Ontario says it expects 65 per cent of adults to have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May.

House parties and other gatherings blamed for Iqaluit’s rise in COVID-19 cases

Nunavut’s chief public health officer says house parties and visits between households are to blame for a rise in COVID-19 cases in Iqaluit, but vaccination rates have also climbed in the capital.

Dr. Michael Patterson says he knows of at least three house parties in Iqaluit where COVID-19 was transmitted.

As a result, anyone who attended a party in the last three weeks in the city is being asked to call a COVID-19 hotline and get tested.

“Visiting and social gatherings are the main causes of spread in Iqaluit right now. These activities put people at risk and will extend the outbreak if they continue,” Patterson said Thursday.

Although indoor and outdoor gatherings are banned in Iqaluit, Patterson said public health officials will not report people to law enforcement who have been to a house party and call the hotline.

He said no one has been fined as a result of the house parties.

Iqaluit has been under a strict lockdown since April 15. Travel is restricted and all schools and non-essential businesses have been closed.

Meanwhile, 80 per cent of Iqaluit’s adult population has received at least one dose of the Moderna vaccine, the only vaccine currently offered in Nunavut.

As of Wednesday, half of Nunavut’s total adult population were fully vaccinated.

Anyone who travels to Iqaluit from elsewhere, including for medical care, must isolate for 14 days when they arrive home to prevent spreading COVID-19 to other communities, Patterson said.

There were also 10 active cases of COVID-19 at Iqaluit’s Baffin Correctional Centre and all inmates were isolating on site.

Patterson said the new cases were likely contracted before COVID-19 was discovered in the jail. A mass COVID-19 screening was to take place Thursday or Friday to see if there has been transmission within the facility.

Baffinland’s Mary River mine near Pond Inlet, Nunavut, stopped production Wednesday because of a COVID-19 outbreak. There were 23 active cases at the mine, and staff will be transferred to Southern Canada to complete their isolation periods.

On Wednesday, Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for people ages 12 and up. Although the Northwest Territories started offering the Pfizer vaccine to 12 to 17 year-olds on Thursday, Patterson said Nunavut isn’t there yet because of cold storage requirements.

“The difficulties in getting that out into remote communities – it’s a big challenge for everyone,” Patterson said.

“We’re looking at all options including if there’s an opportunity to use Pfizer in the near future for at least some children in Nunavut.”

As of Thursday, 30 of Iqaluit’s COVID-19 cases have been children.

There were 86 active cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut and three people have been hospitalized in Ottawa since the first case was declared in Iqaluit on April 14.

Rankin warns he may impose tougher travel restrictions as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin leaves after holding a news conference in Halifax, on Feb. 24, 2021.

Tim Krochak/The Canadian Press

With Atlantic Canada’s worst COVID-19 outbreak showing no signs of letting up, Nova Scotia’s premier warned Thursday he might impose tougher restrictions to reduce the rapid spread of the deadly virus.

Premier Iain Rankin told a virtual news conference he has grown frustrated with residents and visitors who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously, despite the fact the number of active cases has jumped from 111 two weeks ago to 1,309 on Thursday.

“I don’t know what more I could say to Nova Scotians to make sure they take this issue seriously,” he said after a cabinet meeting. “If public health (officials) have other restrictions that they think will help, I won’t hesitate to put them in.”

Health officials reported 182 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday – another record daily high. They said 45 people were in hospital with the disease, including nine in intensive care.

Continuing a trend that started a month ago, almost all of the new cases – 155 – were reported in the province’s central zone, which includes Halifax.

“It’s widespread in the Halifax area,” Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Nova Scotia marked a dubious milestone when its per capita rate of active infections eclipsed that of Quebec for the first time. According to Ottawa’s daily online epidemiology update, Nova Scotia’s infection rate as of Wednesday was 123 cases per 100,000 people and Quebec’s stood at 104 per 100,000.

Aside from the other Atlantic Provinces and the territories, Quebec’s per capita active infection rate is now the lowest in Canada.

In Halifax, Rankin said the restrictions imposed last week when the province went into a two-week lockdown were harsher than the measures taken during the first wave of the pandemic last year.

On April 27, the province ordered the closure of schools, malls, gyms, bars, restaurants and most retail stores – and it closed its borders to all non-essential travel.

Rankin also doubled the maximum fine for those caught violating the province’s public health rules, which include a ban on travel between municipalities. “People need to co-operate for those restrictions to work,” the premier said, adding that the coming weekend could prove to be a turning point.

“I know that Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and I know that’s going to be difficult. But people, please stay home. Use your virtual apps to say hello, or your phones.”

Police in two Nova Scotia communities confirmed Thursday they had laid charges in connection with COVID-19 restrictions.

In New Glasgow, N.S., police said a 32-year-old driver on his way to New Brunswick was charged under the Emergency Management Act for travelling for non-essential business and for leaving his home municipality.

And in Cape Breton, police charged a 56-year-old New Waterford, N.S., man Wednesday for violating a provision of the Health Protection Act that says anyone arriving from outside Nova Scotia, P.E.I. or Newfoundland and Labrador must self-isolate for 14 days.

He was handed a $2,000 fine.

Asked if the latest Nova Scotia outbreak could be linked to the province’s decision last month to loosen restrictions, Rankin said that wasn’t the case. The premier said the sudden surge was the result of people coming to the province from outside Atlantic Canada and ignoring the 14-day isolation requirements.

“I can’t help it if people don’t listen to the 14-day isolation, which is why we went further this time, and we actually closed the borders down,” he said. “We’re going to continue to turn people away unless they have an essential reason to come here.”

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Health Minister Zach Churchill said his department and the various health authorities are working on a worst-case-scenario plan.

“We’re seeing a high level of hospitalization with this third wave,” he told the news conference. “Younger, healthier people are being hospitalized at a higher rate than the first two waves.”

Churchill said the province’s health-care system can withstand the surge in cases, based on the latest computer modelling and accounting for the cancellation of elective procedures.

ICU survivors at higher risk of suicide, research finds; implications for COVID

Patients discharged from intensive care are at higher risk of suicide, according to new research, suggesting that people who survive a serious COVID-19 infection could also be more likely to harm themselves.

The study was based on pre-pandemic data, but the researchers say its findings take on added significance given the unprecedented surge in critical care admissions due to the novel coronavirus.

“In light of the pandemic, our findings have far more importance now that we know that ICU survivors are going to be at higher risk (of suicide),” said Dr. Shannon Fernando, lead author and critical care physician affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

The study, said to be the first of its kind, was published Wednesday in The BMJ, a British-based peer-reviewed medical journal. Researchers looked at the health records of hundreds of thousands of adult ICU admissions in Ontario between 2009 and 2017.

During the study period, 423,000 patients survived intensive care. Of those, 750 killed themselves, a significantly higher rate than among non-ICU hospital survivors, and far higher than among the general population.

Overall, when adjusted for “confounding” variables, patients who made it through ICU had a 22 per cent higher risk of suicide compared with non-ICU hospital survivors and a 15 per cent higher risk of self-harm. The more invasive the life-saving procedures, such as mechanical ventilation or kidney dialysis, the more pronounced the effect.

The findings make sense to Christine Caron, who was an active 49-year-old mother and runner who loved dancing when her dog nipped her hand during play. Caron, of Ottawa, developed sepsis and ended up in a coma for a month of her six weeks in ICU.

By the time she was discharged to rehab, doctors had amputated both legs below the knee, her left arm below the elbow, and much of her right hand.

“They’re always celebrating that you’re still alive,” Caron said. “And when you say, ‘This sucks and I want to die,’ people go: ‘What the hell’s the matter with you? You’re alive’.”

Five months into rehab, her hair began falling out in chunks. She started having nightmares and anxiety attacks.

“A lot of people are at home when that hits,” said Caron, now 57. “They are not getting the mental health supports they require.”

Caron said she was astounded when a student psychologist was initially assigned to her rather than a seasoned professional. Ultimately, she said, peer support – others who had been through similar trauma – became her lifeline, even though the subsequent suicide of one of them was devastating.

The research also showed that younger people surviving ICU – those aged 18 to 34 – appear at highest risk of harming themselves.

“If you asked me before about the young person who goes home on their own from the ICU, I would have said that’s my greatest win,” Fernando said in an interview.

“But we’ve identified now that these patients are uniquely at risk of death by suicide (and) that population is exactly the population, especially now in the third wave, that we’re seeing with COVID.”

Normally, ICU doctors focus on saving a patient’s life but the study suggests identifying those at risk of what is dubbed post-intensive care syndrome is crucial to self-harm prevention.

What’s become clear in recent years is that many patients who survive ICU are unable to get back to their pre-ICU lives. They may have to deal with life-altering physical realities, an inability to work, and monumental stresses on families and relationships.

Even the previously well adjusted develop mental illness as a result, bringing the higher risk of suicide or self-harm.

“It’s never been demonstrated before but (this study) shows the toll of ICU survivorship,” Fernando said.

A substantial number of patients who recover from serious COVID-19 infection, regardless of whether they need ICU or even a hospital, develop ongoing health problems known as “long COVID.” This, too, could pose a mental health risk.

“You’re going to see a lot more of this when COVID patients start to recover more,” Caron said. “When they say ‘recovered,’ they’ve not even touched on it yet.”

But exactly what needs to be done to mitigate the elevated suicide risk is not clear.

For Fernando, the study underscores the need for mental health supports. More research will have to be done, he said, into how best to provide them.

“We also have to face the possibility that our current system has failed a lot of these patients,” Fernando said.

The study researchers are affiliated with the Ottawa Hospital, University of Ottawa and the non-profit research institutes, Institut du Savoir Montfort and ICES.

No tickets, charges issued in Quebec for travellers violating hotel quarantine order

No one in Quebec has been fined or ticketed for violating the national health order requiring travellers arriving in Canada to quarantine at a designated hotel, according to province’s prosecution bureau.

That is despite Quebec’s government being one of the most vocal in the country for strict border restrictions. Premier François Legault had repeatedly demanded Ottawa do more to curb people’s ability to leave or enter the country.

In January, Legault called on Ottawa to ban non-essential flights to Canada or require people to quarantine at a hotel where they could more easily be monitored by police.

“We cannot take any chances with the new variant,” Legault said on Jan. 21, lamenting that the federal government was too lax with travellers. “Right now, the [home] quarantine for these people is not enough of a guarantee for the protection of Quebeckers.”

In response to demands from Quebec and other provinces, the federal government modified the Quarantine Act to limit all international flights into the country to airports in four cities: Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Since Feb. 22, most travellers arriving in Canada by air are required to quarantine at a government-approved hotel while they wait for the results of a COVID-19 test conducted when they land in the country.

Those who test negative can complete the rest of their 14-day quarantine at home, while those who test positive must finish their isolation in a government-designated facility.

Across the country, at least 1,098 tickets have been issued and 15 people have been criminally charged for violations of the Quarantine Act since March 2020, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The agency did not immediately reply to a question about how many of those were for violations of the hotel quarantine requirement.

The agency works with the RCMP, local police and private security to enforce the act, Tammy Jarbeau, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an e-mail Thursday.

“To date, more than 210,000 compliance visits have been made,” she said. “PHAC is aware of incidents of travellers choosing to take a contraventions ticket instead of paying for a three-night hotel stay. These travellers are consistently referred to local law enforcement for priority follow-up.”

In Quebec, provincial prosecutors haven’t issued any fines – or filed any charges – for violations of the Quarantine Act, Audrey Roy-Cloutier, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s prosecutors office, said in an e-mail Wednesday.

Quebec prosecutors are responsible for issuing tickets for violations of the law and share responsibility with their federal colleagues for laying charges, she said.

Nathalie Houle, a spokeswoman for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, said federal prosecutors haven’t laid any charges for violations of the hotel quarantine requirement in Quebec.

A request for comment to Legault’s office was directed to the office of Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault. Amelie Paquet, a spokeswoman for Guilbault, says police in the province are enforcing the law.

“Quebec police are in action,” she said. “Police are submitting infraction reports and they’re making home visits with the list provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada.”

Since February, provincial and municipal police forces in Quebec have had full responsibility for enforcing the Quarantine Act in the province, she said. Before that, she added, the RCMP was the primary agency responsible for the law.

While Quebec police can issue fines on the spot for some violations of the province’s Public Health Act, fines under the federal Quarantine Act must be issued by prosecutors, Paquet said.

Montreal police said they’re working with the PHAC and have submitted 43 reports of alleged violations of the Quarantine Act to prosecutors since Feb. 22, the day the hotel requirement took effect. They declined to say whether any of those reports were related to violations of that requirement.

The provincial prosecution bureau said it can’t comment about why no fines have been issued – or charges laid – in any of those 43 cases.

It’s not just Quebec where few or no charges have been laid for violations of the Quarantine Act.

Between March 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, three charges were filed in Alberta provincial court under the Quarantine Act, according to the province’s Justice Department.

Dan McLaughlin, spokesman for the British Columbia Prosecution Service, said prosecutors in that province aren’t responsible for prosecuting offences under the Quarantine Act.

Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney-General was not able to immediately provide data on Quarantine Act prosecutions.

Alberta’s top doctor says ‘very likely’ COVID-19 vaccine interval to be shortened

Alberta’s top doctor says it’s very likely that second doses of COVID-19 vaccines will be offered within less than four months of the first as supplies ramp up.

The province authorized a 16-week interval in order to get as many people protected with their first shots as possible while vaccine shipments remained uncertain. For Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the drug makers say the gaps between doses should be three weeks and one month, respectively.

“I want to be clear that that four-month interval was always a maximum,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday.

“We were never planning to require a wait of four months. It was really about we would not have anyone go beyond four months, but if we can offer it sooner, we will.”

People on immunosuppressive drugs, like chemotherapy, are already being offered their second shots in a shortened time frame, Hinshaw said.

She noted that for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, there is evidence that a 12-week wait between doses is more effective than a shorter interval.

As of Monday, all Albertans born in 2009 and earlier will be able to book their first shot.

On Thursday, some 100,000 people born in 1991 and earlier booked their first vaccine appointments. After that, the province will be able to start offering followup doses, Hinshaw said.

So far, 1.73 million doses of vaccine have been given in Alberta.

Alberta recorded 2,211 new COVID-19 cases and no new deaths on Thursday. There were 654 people in hospital, including 146 in intensive care.

More than 11 per cent of tests came back positive.

Hinshaw also reiterated that the province is no longer testing every positive COVID-19 swab for variants. Instead, labs are testing a representative sample.

“This frees up crucial lab capacity to ensure that people get their COVID-19 test results back as soon as possible, which is the most important thing we can do with our lab capacity to minimize further transmission.”

She added that anyone with a positive test should assume they have contracted a variant, as variants are now dominant in the province.

Saskatchewan to begin vaccinating children 12 and older by end of June

Saskatchewan is extending its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan to include children aged 12 and older with expected first doses by the end of the school year.

Officials told a news conference Thursday the vaccines will be administered in school-based programs, pharmacies and clinics.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said the plan to offer shots in schools and timelines, as well as the parental consent process, are still being finalized.

When the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available in schools, the province said parents can expect to hear from public health officials and from their school divisions.

The announcement comes a day after Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 12 and up.

Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said vaccine trials in younger children remain underway.

“We fully expect those trials to be very positive in terms of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines,” he said. “We fully expect that by July or August, we will have information on vaccinations in children under 11.

“We don’t expect them to be very different from the vaccinations that are already available.”

Also Thursday, the province reported 156 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of active infections to 2,158. There were 173 people in hospital due to the virus, and 41 of them were in intensive care.

The province said that later this month it will begin scheduling second vaccine doses for those 85 and older, or those who received their first dose before Feb. 15. The second-dose rollout is to be offered to people in the same sequence as the first doses.

And while first shots will continue to be offered at the same time as second doses, Merriman said he expects minimal overlap.

“It’s going to happen so quickly, it will only be a couple days’ overlap,” he said.

The province is also delivering vaccines to pharmacies, a process that Merriman said is going “extremely well.”

He encouraged everybody who is eligible for their first or second dose to get it.

“After 14 long months, we are finally getting past the point of controlling COVID-19,” said Merriman.

“We are now in a position where we can beat COVID-19. But there’s only one way to do that, and that’s by everybody getting vaccinated the end is in sight, but we have to keep going.”

Officials project that all Saskatchewan adults will be eligible to book their second dose by July 31.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians should get vaccinated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible, so the country can get back to normal. He says every COVID-19 vaccine available in Canada has been approved by Health Canada as being both safe and effective and noted that he received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The Canadian Press

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