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The Centennial College Scarborough COVID-19 vaccine clinic, on April 14, 2021.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s science advisers say maintaining some public health restrictions until mid-June and continuing progress on vaccinations will ensure the province has a “good summer.”

The findings come in new projections released today by Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.

The group says COVID-19 cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations are declining due to public health measures, which include a stay-at-home order and the closure of schools to in-person learning.

The advisers say reopening schools on June 2 – when the stay-at-home order expires – could lead to a six to 11 per cent increase in cases but that “may be manageable.”

The group, which has criticized the government’s closure of outdoor recreational facilities, also says outdoor activities should be encouraged since they are safer than indoor gatherings.

The advisers’ projections come hours before Premier Doug Ford is set to make an announcement on the province’s reopening plan.

The health minister has said the plan will be “sector-specific” and involve a staggered approach to reopening some activities.

A spokeswoman for Ford has said the province will not return to the tiered colour-coded restrictions system it used before imposing the stay-at-home order amid skyrocketing cases.

Quebec schools to bus teens aged 12 to 17 to vaccine centres in June

Quebec schoolchildren between the ages of 12 and 17 will be bused to COVID-19 vaccine centres or given shots at school over two weeks in June, the province’s health minister said Thursday.

Christian Dube unveiled the province’s plan to fully vaccinate young people with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine before school returns in the fall. Health Canada approved that vaccine for ages 12 and up earlier in May, and Dube said the vaccine is highly effective in young people.

Under the plan, kids 12 and over can begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines at Montreal’s two drive-thru sites with their families as of Friday and make appointments at mass vaccine sites as of May 25.

The school vaccine program will take place the weeks of June 7 and 14 and will follow a “hybrid” model, Dube said, that could include sending mobile vaccine clinics to schools or transporting students to nearby vaccine centres, depending on the region.

The government hopes to vaccinate all kids between the ages of 12 and 17 with one dose by June 23 and both doses by the time school returns in the fall, Dube said.

Dube, who was accompanied by Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge and Higher Education Minister Danielle McCann, stressed that vaccinating a large part of the population with two doses is key to having a more normal school year.

“This is what will allow us to start the 2021-22 school year on the right foot for everyone, parents and students alike,” he said.

Children under the age of 14 need to get parental permission for a vaccine, while those 14 and over can decide on their own. There are about 530,000 people in the 12-to-17 age group in Quebec, representing about six per cent of the population.

Earlier Thursday, Quebec reported 662 new cases of COVID-19 and eight more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one in the past 24 hours. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by six, to 460, while the number of people in intensive care also fell by six, to 107.

The province said it administered 89,551 vaccine doses on Wednesday and has given at least one dose to 51.4 per cent of the population.

The Health Department also announced that people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine outside the province can register to receive an electronic proof of vaccination and make an appointment for a second dose if they are not yet fully vaccinated.

Canada’s vaccine pace outstripping much of the world but still lags on second doses

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People walk by a sign for a COVID-19 vaccination site, in Montreal, on May 16, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canada’s vaccination effort against COVID-19 has pulled even with the United States in one of the key markers in the race to herd immunity and is closing in fast on a status as one of the top 10 most vaccinated countries in the world.

Globally Canada now sits in the top 15 among nations for the share of the population with at least one dose of vaccine – a marked change from the 42nd place it held in early March.

But any celebration of the achievement is muted for some health professionals who see Canada pulling ahead at the expense of much of the world.

As of Thursday morning Canada had given at least one dose to 18.1 million people, about 47.6 per cent of the population, tying the United States. Canada will pull into the lead by day’s end, now vaccinating people 1.8 times faster than the U.S.

Canada is still well behind on second doses – down in about 64th place globally with only four per cent of the population fully vaccinated now. The U.S. has fully vaccinated 37.5 per cent.

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe said Canada’s demand continues to be very strong, boding well for the goal to get at least 75 per cent of the population vaccinated.

“Canada is in this situation where our pace of vaccination is accelerating, past the point where it started to sharply decelerate in the United States,” he said.

Tombe said Canada’s pace is now among the fastest in the world, and is on track to go ahead of Chile and Hungary next week, the United Kingdom in early June and Israel before Canada Day.

Canada will get half the population vaccinated with one dose this weekend, and to the magic 75 per cent of people over 12 by the third week of June. That’s the number where health officials say restrictions can start to gradually be lifted.

Procurement Minister Anita Anand seems loathe to do any celebratory dance about the milestones, repeating over and over that her focus is only on keeping the pressure on vaccine suppliers to fulfill their contracts in a world where demand is well higher than the available supply.

“I still feel the responsibility weighing very heavily on my shoulders to ensure that we have enough vaccine for all Canadians who want it to be vaccinated,” she said.

Still, Anand said it “does feel a little surreal” to see so many Canadians now vaccinated.

Canada’s inability to produce COVID-19 vaccines at home has been a sore spot for the government’s critics, and the biggest barrier to Canada’s vaccine efforts at the start.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the latest numbers are “encouraging” but the vaccine plan is still a “failure” by the government.

“From the beginning, the Liberals made some really key mistakes,” he said. “They didn’t create the capacity to produce the vaccine in Canada.”

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner has been one of the loudest critics of the federal vaccine procurement and said there are still a lot of issues to overcome.

Communications to Canadians about what vaccine to get, the safety issues that arose around the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots and then confusing messaging about who should get that vaccine have been harmful, said Rempel Garner.

People now want to know when they’ll get their second dose, what kind of dose it will be, and when they can start having normal lives again, information that is not forthcoming from Ottawa, she said.

“In spite of all these communication errors, and in spite of the lack of direction on what vaccinated persons can do, I am encouraged by the fact we’re seeing an uptake in vaccinations,” she said.

“I think that’s a very good sign.”

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a critical care pediatric specialist in Vancouver with a research focus on pandemic preparedness, said he gives Canada’s vaccine effort a D-minus, but not because Canadians aren’t getting vaccinated fast enough.

It’s because Canada is vaccinating its own and leaving much of the world to wait months, if not years to do so themselves.

He said his grade it would be an F if Canada hadn’t donated $220 million to help the global-vaccine sharing alliance known as COVAX.

The idea of COVAX was that the world would help vaccinate itself as a whole, pooling vaccines for an equitable global distribution. But Canada donated to COVAX and also signed private deals to get almost 10 doses of vaccine for every Canadian.

Last week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, urged wealthy countries to delay vaccinating their youngest – and least vulnerable citizens – and send doses to help vaccinate vulnerable and high-risk workers in low-income countries.

Canada is already vaccinating kids as young as 12 in many provinces.

Manitoba bans outdoor social gatherings as COVID-19 case count hits new record

The Manitoba government is banning virtually all social gatherings between members of different households, even outdoors, as it faces a record number of new COVID-19 cases and a surge of hospitalizations.

“I can’t understate the importance of us staying at home now, to eliminate contacts outside of our household,” Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer, said Thursday.

“We’re just seeing such increased transmission right now, increased demand on our health-care system.”

Roussin’s announcement came after health officials announced 603 new COVID-19 cases – a record that broke the previous high last week by 43.

The demand for intensive care has risen so sharply, three patients were sent to Thunder Bay, Ont., this week to free up beds. The number of people in intensive care hit a record 131 Wednesday before dropping to 125 the next day. Before the pandemic, Manitoba’s capacity was 72.

1,500 people kicked off Quebec’s Oka beach over failure to respect COVID-19 rules

A spokesman for Quebec’s provincial park network says some 1,500 people were kicked off a popular beach west of Montreal Wednesday after a number of them refused to respect COVID-19 health orders.

Simon Boivin says Oka beach, which is located inside Oka provincial park, was ordered closed at about 3 p.m. after certain groups refused to respect physical distancing rules and became verbally abusive to park staff.

Boivin says the beach’s capacity is normally 5,000 but that had been cut to 2,500 because of the pandemic and was further reduced to 1,500 after crowding was observed last week.

As of today, he says the beach has reopened with a capacity of 750 and a stern warning that anyone who violates the rules will be asked to leave immediately.

Oka Mayor Pascal Quevillon says the beach normally attracts a quiet crowd and he believes Wednesday’s rowdiness was an isolated event.

But he says the city is discussing solutions with park management if the situation doesn’t improve, including the possibility of banning alcohol.

Quevillon says he believes a daylong strike at junior colleges as well as the absence of other open venues attracted a younger and rowdier crowd than usual, and he says many were drinking heavily.

“People can’t meet on private land, bars are closed,” he said.

“People want to go to the beach because it allows people to meet without being too much at risk.”

Boivin says the government agency that manages provincial parks, known as the Societe des etablissements de plein air du Quebec, or Sepaq, takes its mission to allow access to its parks seriously.

“But it can’t be done in a situation that puts citizens or employees in danger,” he said in a phone interview.

He says current COVID-19 health orders require people who don’t live together to stay two metres apart when outdoors, or wear masks when physical distancing is impossible.

Boivin says the parks agency will monitor Oka beach in the coming days and decide what to do next. That could mean gradually allowing more people to return to the beach if the site remains quiet, or imposing stricter rules if problems persist.

Health Minister Christian Dube on Thursday denounced the behaviour at the beach as “exactly what should not happen.”

He said that while he understand people want to socialize, he doesn’t want to see beaches become outbreak sites.

“I don’t want the beach to be our next problem,” he told a news conference in Montreal.

“And what we see in Oka, we’re not going in the right direction.”

He reminded Quebeckers that the province’s plan to gradually reopen different sectors and activities over the coming weeks is contingent on people respecting health orders.

Nova Scotia expands vaccine access to people aged 25 and up, offers more testing in Cape Breton

Nova Scotia lowered the age of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to people 25 and up on Thursday and boosted rapid testing in the Sydney, N.S., area to rein in community spread of the novel coronavirus.

The government says there are about 61,400 eligible people in the 25-to-29 age group who can receive the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines. Nova Scotia’s vaccine rollout grants access in descending order of five-year age groups as supply becomes available.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang has said 40 per cent of the province’s population has received one or more doses of vaccine, but he has cautioned the province’s “magic number” is to get 75 per cent of the entire population vaccinated.

Strang has also said all Nova Scotians 12 and up should be able to book a vaccination appointment by next week.

Meanwhile, health officials added a new pop-up rapid test site at Centre 200 – Sydney’s downtown arena – until at least Sunday.

Strang said Wednesday that officials had detected community spread in Cape Breton and added that most of the cases have been identified around the Sydney area. The province reported 19 new cases of COVID-19 in the eastern zone, which includes Cape Breton, on Wednesday.

Strang said the outbreak in the area is predominantly among people in their 20s and 30s and that more testing is needed to identify what is driving the rise in infections. He said officials are also looking at adding more pop-up sites around various locations in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Pallister says tighter COVID-19 public health orders coming in advance of long weekend

Manitoba is planning to tighten its public health orders as it faces a record number of new COVID-19 cases.

Health officials are reporting 603 more infections – more than 40 above the previous record set last week – and three deaths.

Premier Brian Pallister says new measures will focus on gatherings and staying at home, and will be announced by the chief public health officer later today.

Manitoba already bans most social gatherings at private residences and has closed indoor dining at restaurants and food courts.

Manitoba’s intensive care units are at record levels, and three patients this week were sent to Ontario to free up bed space.

Pallister is also promising to reveal incentives next week to encourage people to get vaccinated.

B.C. to roll out plans for vaccinating youth aged 12 to 17

British Columbia will roll out its plans today on how it will vaccinate thousands of children and youth in the province against COVID-19.

Premier John Horgan is joining a news conference today with Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, where they are expected to announce the details.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has recently been approved for use in children aged 12 to 17.

Health officials said Wednesday that children in that age group can register in the online portal and more details on booking a shot would come today.

All adults in B.C. are also eligible to register and book to get vaccinated.

More than 2.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed in the province, including 135,246 that were second shots.

UBC researchers launching national vaccine registry and survey of pregnant, breastfeeding people

University of British Columbia researchers are launching a national COVID-19 vaccine registry and survey of pregnant and breastfeeding people.

Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding will be able to register for the study online and do not need to be vaccinated yet or plan to get the shot.

U-B-C obstetrics and gynecology professor Dr. Deborah Money says there’s an urgent need to monitor outcomes related to COVID-19 vaccines, since initial clinical trials excluded pregnant and breastfeeding people.

She says there’s reassuring data coming from the vaccine rollout in the U-S, while the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommend vaccination for those who are pregnant and breastfeeding.

Most students in Alberta to return to in-class learning on Tuesday

Most kindergarten to Grade 12 students in Alberta will be heading back to class on Tuesday after the long weekend.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says the only exception will be students in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray.

They will learn from home for an extra week due to continued high COVID-19 case counts in the region.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, says it’s safe for children to return to school.

Impatience, lack of clarity as clock ticks on AstraZeneca expiry date

Impatience and a lack of clarity persisted Thursday over the fate of thousands of doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine set to expire in the coming weeks but answers could be coming within days.

Several provinces have stopped giving the COVID-19 shot over concerns of rare, fatal blood clots. Health authorities were still trying to decide whether to resume its use and if using a different vaccine for second shots makes sense.

At the same time, Ottawa has been distributing hundreds of thousands of AstraZeneca doses to the provinces, some of which are sitting on soon-to-expire stockpiles. Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said vaccine wastage was largely an issue for the provinces to sort out.

Justin Bates, head of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, said an announcement that had been expected on Thursday would now likely happen in the coming days. The association, he said, was in confidential discussions with the province about using the AstraZeneca, something he said should be done.

“Absolutely. We have a shared objective with the ministry to ensure that we use, wherever appropriate and feasible, all of the AstraZeneca remaining doses.”

Ontario is banking on a steady increase in vaccinations for its three-phased reopening to start, tentatively in mid-June. Health Minister Christine Elliott indicated on Thursday the province was leaning toward using AstraZeneca for second doses.

“We are waiting for the final recommendations (from experts) on what we should do with the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Elliott said. “Data from the U.K. indicate that any problems with the second shot are far less.”

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says as more Canadians receive a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, they can look forward to a summer of small outdoor gatherings such as barbecues, camping and picnics. She says in the fall, as more receive their second dose, Canadians can expect a return to indoor work, recreational activities and get-togethers.

The Canadian Press

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