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A visitor arrives at the Roberta Place Long Term Care home in Barrie, Ont. on Jan. 18, 2021.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario says it is loosening pandemic restrictions placed on long-term care homes as vaccination rates rise.

The new rules will now mean homes can safely resume communal dining, indoor events and gatherings.

The directive also allows residents and their caregivers who are fully immunized to have physical contact, like hugging.

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The province says once the current stay-at-home order is lifted, it will issue further direction that allows social and temporary outings for fully vaccinated residents.

The government says all residents are currently allowed to leave a nursing home for medical or compassionate absences.

Last week, the province said approximately 94 per cent of long-term care residents were fully vaccinated and 84 per cent of staff had received at least their first dose of the COVID-19 shot.

Quebec to end emergency lockdown measures in some parts of province next week

Quebec’s premier on Tuesday said he will lift emergency measures in some parts of the province next week but said vaccination rates have to be higher before a wider return to normal life is possible.

The situation has improved enough in most of the Quebec City area to lift the special emergency measures imposed at the beginning of April, Francois Legault told reporters.

High schools and stores can reopen next Monday and the nighttime curfew will be pushed back to 9:30 p.m. from 8 p.m. in the region, including Quebec City, Levis, Bellechasse and Montmagny-L’Islet.

Parts of Chaudiere-Appalaches, located south of Quebec City, and Outaouais in western Quebec will move to the red pandemic-alert level, under which non-essential businesses and high schools can reopen.

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While Quebec’s cases and hospitalizations have been stable in recent weeks, Legault said it was too soon to consider a wider reopening because the majority of Quebecers have yet to receive a first dose of vaccine.

“We continue to vaccinate more every day and we’re getting closer to normal lives, but if we want to get there, we must lift the restrictions gradually and at least 75 per cent of Quebecers over 18 years old need to be vaccinated,” he said.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccination during a demonstration of a drive-thru site, in Montreal, on May 4, 2021.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Later in the news conference, however, Legault said reopening also depended on other factors such as hospitalizations, adding he hoped to lift some restrictions before the 75 per cent target is reached.

The province has vaccinated just under 38 per cent of Quebecers with at least one dose. Vaccine appointments are available to members of the general public who are 45 and up, with the age limit set to drop by five years every few days.

Earlier on Tuesday, Quebec health officials unveiled the city’s first drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination site in a parking lot at Montreal-Trudeau International Airport. Health Minister Christian Dube was on hand as regional health authorities demonstrated how people will be vaccinated without leaving their car.

The operation is expected to be running by May 17, administering 4,000 shots per day, and it could serve as a blueprint for similar sites elsewhere in the province.

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Dube said people are eager to get vaccinated, and each time the province opens a new age eligibility, appointments are quickly scooped up. With two million Pfizer-BioNTech doses expected in May alone, Dube urged as many Quebecers as possible to get a shot this month.

“If we can vaccinate two million people in May, it means we could accelerate the second dose, which was due after June,” Dube told reporters at the airport.

Dube later reported on Twitter that across Quebec, 75 per cent of people age 55 to 59 have made appointments for their first doses, meeting the province’s target for the age group. He said, however, Montreal was still 10,000 bookings short of the goal.

Quebec reported 797 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday as well as 16 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Hospitalizations increased by six, to 594, while the number of people in intensive care rose by four, to 155.

Toronto police laid more than 220 charges related to alleged breaches of emergency orders last weekend

Toronto police say they laid just over 220 charges related to alleged breaches of the provincial emergency orders over the last weekend.

The force’s interim chief provided an update on the enforcement efforts in a tweet Monday night.

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James Ramer says the charges include criminal ones, but gave no further details.

Is my area going back into COVID-19 lockdown? A guide to restrictions across Canada

Last Friday, police said they had laid 230 charges related to the pandemic rules in about a week.

They said enforcement is focusing largely on big indoor events held in short-term rentals as well as shuttered bars and restaurants.

Police said more gatherings are being reported in the downtown area, but officers are responding to calls across the city.

Pharmacists association ‘disappointed,’ worried NACI advice will stoke COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

A medical worker prepares a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine, on March 18, 2021.

YVES HERMAN/Reuters

The Canadian Pharmacists Association says advice from a national panel on vaccines is unhelpful and likely to make it harder to get enough people in the country vaccinated to end the pandemic.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization set off a firestorm of fear and anger Monday after saying mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are “preferred” because viral-vector vaccines from Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson carry a remote risk of blood clots.

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NACI, a panel of physicians and other vaccine experts, provided non-binding advice to provinces that the viral-vector vaccines should only be used on people over the age of 30, who are at higher risk of getting COVID-19.

Phil Emberley, a veteran pharmacist and acting director of professional affairs for the national pharmacists group, says he is “disappointed” with NACI’s statements and is worried the advice will make more Canadians hesitate to get vaccinated.

He says when you weigh the risks that come with COVID-19 against the risks of any of the vaccines Canada has authorized, preventing the virus is always the better choice.

Emberley says he got the AstraZeneca vaccine himself three weeks ago and has no regrets or concerns that he should have held out for a different vaccine.

Ontario reports 2,791 new COVID-19 cases; Quebec reports 797

Ontario reports that there are 2,791 new cases of COVID-19 in the province and 25 more deaths linked to the virus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says 931 of those new cases are in Toronto, 653 are in Peel Region, and 275 are in York Region.

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Over 88,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered in Ontario since Monday’s report, for a total of more than 5.4 million doses.

Meanwhile, the Quebec government is reporting 797 cases as well as 16 additional deaths.

The province administered another 50,379 vaccine doses in the past 24 hours and added 1,762 from previous days to its tally, for a total of 3,308,542 total doses given to date.

Health Minister Christian Dube says at least 75 per cent of Quebecers age 55 to 59 have now booked their first shots, but that the province wants to surpass that target in order to maximize herd immunity.

COVID-19 cases climb in Iqaluit’s young population; hotel being used for isolation

Flags representing Nunavut and Canada fly in Iqaluit on Feb. 9, 2017.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Nunavut’s chief public health officer says COVID-19 cases are climbing in Iqaluit’s younger population and a local hotel is being used as an isolation centre after a shelter closed in the city.

Over the weekend, Iqaluit’s only low barrier shelter, where people can stay if they’re intoxicated, was shut down after all of its staff went into isolation for COVID-19 – with one staff member testing positive.

Dr. Michael Patterson, the territory’s chief public health officer, said there are 31 people staying at the Aqsarniit Hotel and Conference Centre, a hotel in Iqaluit.

He said some of those people are isolating for COVID-19 and others are staying there because they have nowhere else to go.

‘We’re using it as an alternative isolation site for people who either don’t have housing or have overcrowded housing,” Patterson said.

“They’re going there to reduce the risk of them spreading it to other individuals.”

Patterson said, as of Monday, 23 of the territory’s 85 active cases are in people under the age of 18. There are 83 active cases in Iqaluit and two in Kinngait, all considered to be the variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

As of Tuesday, two cases in Rankin Inlet have recovered, bringing the total number of recoveries to 50 since the first case was declared in Iqaluit on April 14.

A second person had to be medevaced out of the territory with complications related to COVID-19, but further details weren’t released for privacy reasons.

Patterson said there are also eight cases of COVID-19 at Iqaluit’s Baffin Correctional Centre, but health officials still don’t know how the virus entered the facility.

There were also changes to Nunavut’s public health orders for travellers. Anyone living in the same household as someone who has travelled to Nunavut from southern Canada without isolating, has left Iqaluit since April 7 or has left Yellowknife since April 28 must isolate for 14 days.

Although transmission was initially found in essential workplaces in the city, cases are now being linked to household transmission, Patterson said.

There is also a COVID-19 outbreak ongoing at Baffinland’s Mary River mine near Pond Inlet, on the north of Baffin Island. There are currently 12 cases at the mine, some of which are the B117 variant first identified in the U.K. and at least one of which is the B1617 variant first identified in India, Patterson said.

“We are monitoring the situation and, if the need arises, are prepared to send support resources,” Patterson said.

The risk from the mine’s outbreak is low because there are no Nunavut residents currently working there and the site can only be accessed by air.

Top N.S. critical care doctor says COVID-19 patients could avoid transfers if public acts now

Nova Scotia’s top COVID-19 critical care doctor says Halifax patients in intensive care may face transfers around the province in coming weeks, depending on whether the population manages to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread.

Models suggest critical care units in the city could approach capacity by mid-May, Dr. Tony O’Leary, medical director of critical care for Nova Scotia Health, said Tuesday. At that point, he added, it’s possible patients will have to be shifted to hospitals outside Halifax.

“If the public follows public health measures now and in the coming weeks, it is going to make the difference between people having to be transferred around the province because we’ve reached our capacity in central zone,” O’Leary said in an interview, referring to the health region that includes Halifax.

As of Tuesday, Nova Scotia had 1,060 active COVID-19 cases – with most in the Halifax area – and models predict up to 10 per cent of those infected will require hospitalization, with about three per cent of the total needing intensive care.

Meanwhile, health officials said Tuesday that two people recently died of COVID-19 at home and 39 patients are in hospital with the disease. Officials also reported a new record high of 153 new COVID-19 cases. Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health, said it is concerning that one of those who died wasn’t known to public health as a positive COVID-19 case.

“The illness we are seeing in Nova Scotia from the variants can progress quickly and give people severe symptoms, sometimes in as little as 12 hours,” Strang said, adding that people should not hesitate to go to hospital.

“The disease may not give you time to wait,” he said.

O’Leary says if the modelling bears out, the current number of positive tests will soon put pressure on the capital’s critical care units, though he predicts they can handle the surge if the general population strictly adheres to public health guidelines in the coming weeks and the rise of cases begins to slow.

The physician says the city’s system has capacity for about 28 critical care beds, and it can extend that capacity up to 44 beds.

O’Leary, however, says as of Tuesday, his teams were bracing for a possible tripling of Halifax’s current level of eight COVID-19 ICU patients to between 20 to 25 patients in seven to 10 days.

The doctor says the ability of ICU staff to handle the pandemic surge will depend on how many other extremely sick patients need intensive care, as well as the rate at which COVID-19 patients are being referred and recovering.

O’Leary says once Halifax’s system hits about 85 per cent capacity and if there is steady flow of COVID-19 referrals, that would be a trigger for transfers of patients to some of the other hospitals around the province.

The critical care physician said Nova Scotia’s system is preparing for that possibility.

“The idea is that if a patient needs a bed, they’ll get it,” he said. “It may not be at their closest hospital if we get very full, but the plan is in place to use all critical beds as a provincial resource.”

There are a total of 93 intensive care beds around the province for both COVID-19 and other patients, with a plan to increase that to 133 if necessary.

The recent spikes in cases in Nova Scotia have been a reflection of some of the highest testing levels since the pandemic started, and the province has been catching up with a backlog of results.

Strang said going forward it’s expected the positive test results will begin to drop.

The public health doctor also urged Nova Scotians to think of the families of those who had just died if they’re tempted to breach public health rules.

“This isn’t a joke, it isn’t annoyance and it isn’t a conspiracy,” he said. “COVID is real, it’s here and it can kill.”

O’Leary said those who are treated in intensive care have a stronger chance of recovery than a year ago, noting treatments have evolved considerably.

Critical care teams will delay putting patients on ventilators, instead using methods to keep a high flow of oxygen to them and – in some instances – the patients are encouraged to roll over onto their stomach to assist in breathing, a method known as “proning,” the physician explained.

Combinations of the steroid drug dexamethasone and the antiviral drug remdesivir are being used to reduce the need for mechanical ventilation and to shorten recovery times.

“I think we can save more lives,” O’Leary said.

Canada to receive Moderna vaccine shipment one week earlier than expected

Canada is receiving a shipment of Moderna vaccine a week earlier than expected.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada is picking up its next shipment of Moderna vaccine tonight in Europe.

He says by tomorrow morning, a million Moderna doses will be on the ground in Canada.

Trudeau also says this week, just like every week in May, Canada is receiving two million doses from Pfizer-BioNTech alone.

Doctors in Manitoba write open letter, warn of overloaded health-care system

A social-distancing sign is shown at Manitoba's new COVID-19 vaccination centre at the Winnipeg's Convention Centre on Jan. 1, 2021.

JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Some of Manitoba’s top doctors have written an open letter that pleads with the public to obey COVID-19 public health orders to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

“Our health system cannot manage the potential volume of what is coming our way if we do not do everything possible to limit the spread of this virus,” reads the letter signed by the provincial medical leads of 16 specialties, including primary care, surgery and cardiac sciences.

“Manitoba case numbers are rising far too quickly. Hospital beds are starting to fill.”

The province reported 291 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and one death.

Daily case counts should not be so high, given that Manitoba has had varying degrees of restrictions on public gatherings and household social visits for months, said Dr. Bojan Paunovic, a signatory to the letter and the province’s medical specialty lead of critical care.

“We’re seeing case counts that ... are higher than they should be, I think, if the current restrictions were actually being followed,” Paunovic said in an interview.

The daily number of people with COVID-19 being admitted in acute care is now double what it was earlier this year, he added.

The number of ICU beds now filled, including with non-COVID cases, now hovers close to 110, Paunovic said. That’s greater than capacity before the pandemic erupted and is approaching the kind of numbers seen in the second wave during the fall and early winter.

Signs that some Manitobans are not following the rules have been increasing in recent weeks. Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer, said the third wave has been driven partly by social gatherings, including house parties and play dates.

There have also been protests and rallies against public health orders, including one in Winnipeg last month that drew several hundred people.

The open letter states that while the public is frustrated with ongoing restrictions, health workers are also frustrated.

“We are tired, too. Health-care workers have been pushed to their limits during this pandemic and are exhausted,” the letter reads.

Further increases in infections will add to the risk of more cancelled surgeries, fewer beds available for non-COVID cases, and fewer workers available to staff other areas of health care.

The third wave of the pandemic is different, Paunovic said, in that the average age of people requiring hospitalization has dropped sharply. Doctors are seeing more people in their 20s and 30s in intensive care, he said.

“Earlier this week, we even admitted an 18-year-old who needed to be in (intensive care) and on a ventilator.”

The open letter asks Manitobans to hang on for a few more weeks – time to allow patients in hospital to be treated and more vaccines to be administered.

“We really need everyone to just really bite down a little bit harder and give us about another six weeks,” said Dr. Edward Buchel, provincial specialty lead of surgery.

Saskatchewan says COVID-19 reopening plan dependent on vaccine uptake

The Saskatchewan government says its COVID-19 reopening plan will take place in three steps based on vaccine uptake.

The government says Step 1 will happen three weeks after 70 per cent of residents aged 40 and over have received their first dose of vaccine.

In that phase, the government says it would reintroduce some of the rules that were in place last summer, including indoor gatherings of up to 10 people.

It says Step 2 will take place three weeks after 70 per cent of those aged 30 and older have received a first dose and Step 3 will be three weeks after 70 per cent of all adults have had a shot.

By Step 3, the government says it expects to lift most of the remaining COVID-19 public health restrictions.

Officials say the plan relies on the province receiving the supply of vaccines it is expecting on time.

Prominent U.S. vaccine expert urges White House to do more to help Canada fight COVID-19

WASHINGTON – The United States can and should do more to help Canadians get vaccinated against COVID-19, says a prominent Texas doctor, adding to the pressure on the White House to do more beyond America’s borders to end the pandemic.

Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert and a familiar face to cable news viewers in both countries, says the U.S. has more than enough capacity to expand its largely successful vaccination efforts into neighbouring countries, including Canada.

In an interview Monday with The Canadian Press, Hotez said he had assumed – like a lot of Americans – that Canada had essentially been keeping pace with the U.S. in terms of getting its citizens the protection they need.

Then he looked at the numbers.

“I was really astonished – only about a third of the country has received a single dose, and essentially no one’s gotten fully vaccinated,” said Hotez, who is dean of the school of tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“I can’t believe the U.S. is not out there helping, given that the amount of doses we would have to provide is relatively modest (and is) oblivious to the fact that it’s in our own enlightened self-interest to do it.”

Hotez called it “ridiculous” to think that transmission of the virus would be stopped by vaccinating Detroit without vaccinating Windsor, Ont., which is just across the Ambassador Bridge on the other side of the Detroit River.

And Canada’s roughly 38 million people represent a fraction of the 332 million people in the U.S., a “rounding error” in terms of the number of vaccine doses it would require, he added.

“The point is, there are emotional reasons to do it and pragmatic reasons to do it.”

Canada, however, is not the only country that needs help.

Mexico, which also shares a U.S. border, is doing significantly worse than Canada at vaccinating its 130 million residents. And the searing tragedy of a fresh wave in India, along with mounting worry about Brazil, is putting the White House under intense pressure to step up.

Canada and Mexico are both eyeing a growing American surplus of Oxford-AstraZeneca doses, approved for use in those countries but not in the U.S. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said a decision on how best to share those doses is in the works.

“There are a range of requests we’ve had from around the world, and we’re evaluating those needs now, but I can’t get ahead of that process,” Psaki said.

Hotez said those doses would have only a marginal impact in India, a country of 1.4 billion people where the virus has spiralled out of control in recent weeks, overwhelming hospitals and exhausting supplies of basic needs like oxygen.

“The India one is a more complicated issue – yes, we should be providing doses, but the real priority for India is a bit different because of the scope,” he said.

“It’s not that we shouldn’t do it. It’s that it’s got to go far beyond that.”

The U.S. is already helping India with raw materials and parts for vaccine-making equipment, and is still deciding on how to distribute its surplus AstraZeneca doses, President Joe Biden said Tuesday.

“We are going to, by the 4th of July, have sent about 10 per cent of what we have to other nations,” Biden said, without mentioning specific countries beyond the 4 million AstraZeneca doses already shared with Mexico and Canada.

The U.S. will soon begin sharing doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines beyond its borders as well, he promised.

“As long as there’s a problem anywhere in the world, even if we solve it here, we’re going to move as quickly as we can to get as many doses of Moderna and Pfizer as possibly can be produced, and export those around the world.”

A growing chorus of international voices, including progressive lawmakers in the U.S., is calling on Biden to agree to a proposal before the World Trade Organization that would ease patent and intellectual property protections, allowing developing countries to accelerate their own vaccine-manufacturing efforts.

The powerful American pharmaceutical industry is opposed to such a move, fearing an existential threat to a profitable business model.

“We are at war with the virus, and yet what we are seeing is war profiteering; we’re seeing that profits are being put over people,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, told a panel discussion Tuesday.

“The World Health Organization has said that there’s been a billion vaccine doses distributed, but just 0.3 per cent of those doses have gone to poor and developing countries. And that is just totally unacceptable.”

Schakowsky and others are backing a bid by India and South Africa for a waiver to a 27-year-old WTO agreement that essentially protects pharmaceutical trade secrets, a movement that has been gradually gaining steam in recent weeks.

Brajendra Navnit, India’s ambassador to the WTO, made an impassioned plea Tuesday for the so-called TRIPS waiver, insisting that the financial cost of sharing the information would be recovered tenfold in the resulting economic recovery.

“Anyone thinking India’s example has shown that we are saved by vaccinating their own population, it is not going to happen,” Navnit said.

“We have seen that in measles, we have seen that in smallpox, we have seen recently in polio that only when you do global immunization, only then can you get rid of the virus.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the no-one-is-safe-until-everyone-is-safe argument Tuesday but stopped short of saying whether Canada would vote to support the waiver proposal.

“We understand how important it is to get vaccines to the most vulnerable around the world, and we will keep working for that,” he said.

Biden, who promised during the election campaign that the U.S. would share its vaccine know-how with the world, also demurred: “We’re going to decide that as we go along.”

New Brunswick minister says ‘ignore’ federal vaccine panel and accept first COVID-19 vaccine offered

New Brunswickers should ignore new advice from a national panel on vaccines and instead get the first COVID-19 shot they’re offered, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said Tuesday.

Cardy was reacting to comments on Monday from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which said mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are “preferred” because viral-vector vaccines from Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson carry a remote risk of blood clots.

NACI, a panel of physicians and other vaccine experts, provided non-binding advice to provinces that the viral-vector vaccines should only be used on people over the age of 30, who are at higher risk of getting COVID-19.

Cardy said those comments directly contradict long-standing advice from Health Canada to get the first vaccine that is offered, adding New Brunswickers should ignore it like they ignore “anti-maskers.”

“For those who question public safety guidelines, who question public health decisions, who undermine faith in our vaccine system, all I can say is please look at the evidence,” Cardy told a news conference in Fredericton.

“Ignore NACI, ignore anti-maskers, ignore the people undermining faith in science, and do your part for New Brunswick,” he added.

Cardy said he has spoken to many scientists and doctors and none have expressed the same concerns as NACI.

“I would refer to the prime minister’s comment today where he said people should get the first shot they are offered,” Cardy said. “Given the fact that NACI did not say that, I side with the prime minister Clarity around communication on science is incredibly important.”

Meanwhile, New Brunswick expanded access to COVID-19 vaccines on Tuesday to people as young as 50 and to people 16 and older who have two or more chronic health conditions.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell said by the end of Tuesday, 250,000 New Brunswickers will have received at least one dose of vaccine.

Officials in the province reported four new cases of COVID-19. Russell said there was one new case in each of the Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton and Bathurst regions. All four cases are travel-related.

New Brunswick has 141 active cases of COVID-19 and six people in hospital with the disease, including two in intensive care.

B.C. designates pregnant people as priority group for COVID-19 vaccination

Those who are pregnant in British Columbia have now been designated a priority population to receive COVID-19 vaccine.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says data show pregnant people experience severe illness from COVID-19 at a rate similar to those who are in their 50s.

Henry says prioritizing those 16 years and older who are pregnant for vaccination will help protect them, their babies and the wider community.

B.C. has recorded 697 new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 132,353, along with one new death.

There are 7,161 active COVID-19 cases, with 486 people hospitalized.

More than 1.9 million vaccine doses have been administered so far in B.C.

Researchers have been examining the impact of COVID-19 on pregnant women during the pandemic, with particular concerns about their respiratory system.

Dr. Deborah Money, a professor in the University of British Columbia’s department of obstetrics and gynecology leading the national research project, said about 50 to 60 pregnant women are being diagnosed with COVID-19 in B.C. every week.

“What we see is there is an increased rate of hospitalization and, in fact, (intensive care unit) admission in pregnant women compared to non-pregnant women of the same age group,” she said in an interview.

There have been roughly 5,000 pregnancies across the country affected by COVID-19, Money added, and doctors are continuing to study the health of mothers and babies during their recovery.

The decision makes B.C. the latest province to announce vaccine eligibility for pregnant people, following Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island.

Money said she and other doctors are hopeful pregnant people will follow the government’s advice and get the vaccine.

“Pregnant women are always very careful and concerned about taking any medications,” she said. “But we are aware of many pregnant women who want to be vaccinated and were upset they couldn’t access the vaccine.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers union local 1518 says its members who are grocery workers in the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

It says workers will receive special information from their employers and the union about how they can register.

Hope after getting a shot but frustration over the booking process are two themes that emerged when The Globe spoke to people at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic in a Toronto neighbourhood. The Globe and Mail

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