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People line up for COVID-19 vaccines at Downsview Arena in Toronto on May 10, 2021.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario and Quebec continue to see a steady decline of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations as more regions across Canada move to mix and match second doses of the vaccine.

Health officials in Ontario say that people who have received a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be able to get Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna as a booster starting on Friday.

The decision follows guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization earlier this week.

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There were 870 new cases in the province today and 10 more deaths linked to the virus.

Canada reluctant to join international COVID-19 vaccine-sharing campaign

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

Meanwhile, Quebec reported 267 new infections and six more deaths from COVID-19.

Quebec has been mixing doses since April, but is still seeing lagging vaccination rates in two of the cities most affected by the pandemic – Montreal and its northern suburb Laval, Que.

Halifax-area man in his 30s youngest COVID-19 victim in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin urged caution on Thursday after health officials reported the province’s youngest COVID-19 victim as well as a slight rise in new infections.

Rankin reported 25 new cases and the death of a man in his 30s in the Halifax area.

“It’s another reminder of how deadly this virus can be and why it’s so important that we take this cautious, evidence-based approach as we start to move through a slow reopening of our economy,” Rankin told reporters following a cabinet meeting.

A total of 88 people in Nova Scotia have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

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Rankin noted that the province’s active case count had nudged up over the last two days, adding that limited spread of the virus in the Halifax area remained a concern. The province reported 17 cases on Wednesday after identifying 12 cases on Tuesday.

“It’s not a major spike, but it’s another reminder of how serious our cases are,” Rankin said.

The premier appealed to the public to get tested, saying it was “super important” to help track cases as the province reopens.

Nova Scotia has 273 active reported cases of COVID-19 and 22 people in hospital with the disease, including nine in intensive care.

Quebec halves interval between first and second doses to 8 weeks

Quebec is shortening the interval between first and second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines to eight weeks from 16.

Quebecers will be able to reschedule their appointments for a second dose starting June 7, Health Minister Christian Dube told reporters Thursday in Quebec City. Second-dose appointments will be rescheduled in descending order of age, Dube said, adding that about three million appointments will need to be changed.

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The Health Department had been scheduling Quebecers for second doses at the time of their first-dose appointments. Last week, Quebec shortened the interval between doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to eight weeks.

More than 75 per cent of adults in Quebec have received a first dose of vaccine – three weeks earlier than the province had originally planned, Dube said.

“We’re very happy,” he said. “We have succeeded in our first objective.”

Ontario long-term care residents get green light for social outings starting next week

Ontario long-term care residents who have been fully immunized against COVID-19 will be able to go out for day-long and overnight outings starting next week.

The province says it is relaxing restrictions starting next Wednesday, given the high level of vaccination in the long-term care sector and improvements in other public health indicators.

As part of the changes, residents with mobility limitations or other health conditions that make outdoor visits impossible will be allowed to have one visitor indoors as well as an essential caregiver.

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The government says “brief” hugs will also be permitted regardless of the vaccination status of those involved.

As well, close physical contact such as holding hands will be allowed between fully immunized residents and visitors.

The province stresses, however, that everyone should continue to follow public health measures such as hand washing and wearing masks.

Some Ontario hospital measures revoked in light of improving COVID-19 trends

Ontario is ending several emergency orders aimed at preserving hospital capacity during the height of the third wave, including allowing hospitals to resume non-urgent surgeries that require in-patient and critical care services.

Hospitals can also no longer transfer patients to long-term care or retirement homes without their consent, and home care and other health-care staff can no longer be redeployed to those homes.

The orders were imposed in April, when the province’s hospitals were under immense pressure and had to move patients between facilities, redirect staff and cancel non-urgent procedures to ensure they had the capacity to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients.

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The CEO of Ontario Health, which co-ordinates several agencies in the health-care system, says hospitals can resume non-urgent surgeries requiring in-patient services if they meet certain criteria, including having a plan for a rise in COVID-19 patients and readiness to accept patient transfers.

Patients can still be transferred between hospitals without their consent and nonhospital health-care staff can still be redeployed to hospitals.

There are currently 729 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ontario, including 546 in intensive care and 370 patients on ventilators.

Nova Scotia offers earlier second doses of COVID-19 vaccines

Nova Scotia has begun to offer earlier second shots of COVID-19 vaccine.

The province says people who received their first shot between March 11 and March 21 and are scheduled to receive their booster shot between June 24 and July 3 can now reschedule for earlier dates.

About 8,600 people received their first doses between those dates.

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People will receive a notice to reschedule by e-mail, while those who didn’t provide an e-mail when they received their initial shot must call to reschedule or to request that an e-mail address be added to their file.

When rescheduling the second dose, people can select a new date and time at any clinic across the province that has an available appointment.

Nova Scotia has set a target of getting at least 75 per cent of its population fully vaccinated.

Two Quebec cities most affected by pandemic have among the lowest vaccination rates, data show

Two of the Quebec cities most affected by COVID-19 – Montreal and its northern suburb Laval, Que., – have among the lowest vaccination rates in the province, according to data from Quebec’s public health institute.

Experts say those lower rates aren’t surprising: vaccine hesitancy, low trust in government and negative experiences with the health system are all factors that help explain why people in some communities haven’t been as eager as others to get a shot.

“It makes sense that we see under-vaccination in these places,” said Laurence Monnais, a medical historian at Universite de Montreal who has studied vaccine hesitancy.

Only four of the province’s 18 regions have vaccination rates below 60 per cent, according to recent data by Institut national de sante publique du Quebec. Among those regions are Montreal and Laval – the only two areas left at the red pandemic-alert level. They are to move to the lower orange level on Monday.

About 70 per cent of Quebecers over 12 have received at least one dose, compared with 67.5 per cent of Montreal residents and 67.3 in Laval. But there are wide discrepancies among neighbourhoods.

In Montreal, several wealthy suburbs have vaccination rates around 70 per cent, according to data from the city’s public health department. In Montreal-Nord, however, one of the city’s lowest-income boroughs, the vaccination rate is 43.8 per cent. The health region that includes Montreal-Nord has had the second-highest infection rate in Quebec, with 8,545 confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

Neighbouring Villeray – Saint-Michel – Parc-Extension and Saint-Leonard are the only other boroughs or municipalities on the Island of Montreal where fewer than half of the population is vaccinated.

Monnais, who works with CoVivre, a program that aims to mitigate the effects of the pandemic in disproportionately affected communities, said the lower rates in some areas of Montreal aren’t solely due to vaccine hesitancy.

While it may seem logical that people who have been hit hard by the pandemic would want to be among the first to get vaccinated, that is not the case in many parts of Montreal, she said. People may not get vaccinated because clinics aren’t accessible, or they can’t take time off work, she said in a recent interview.

Lack of trust in the government is also playing a role, Monnais said, adding that some people in communities that were highly affected by the pandemic don’t feel like the government did enough to protect them. These people often live in multi-generational homes that depend on a single income, she added.

For people in those situations, it felt like “nobody cared,” she said. “You had to stay at your place with your kin, your extended family, and if somebody was sick, everybody was going to be sick.”

Negative experiences with the health-care system, whether felt directly or heard about, may also play a role in certain populations, such as Black and Indigenous communities, Monnais said.

Nunavik, Quebec’s most northerly region, has the province’s lowest vaccination rate and shares some characteristics with vaccine-hesitant Montreal neighbourhoods.

Dr. Marie Rochette, director of public health at Nunavik’s regional health board, said residents are worried that the vaccines are new and about their side-effects. Experiences and stories of racism in the health-care system have also contributed to skepticism in the largely Indigenous community, Rochette said.

But unlike other parts of Quebec with low vaccination rates, Nunavik has seen few COVID-19 cases. Rochette said she thinks that might also explain the low vaccination rates.

“One of the reasons could be that people don’t perceive that their region is at risk for COVID-19,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “For the past 14 weeks, we only had one case in the region.”

About 49 per cent of residents over 12 have been vaccinated in Nunavik – but the region hasn’t started vaccinating people 17 and under.

Marie-Helene Giguere, a spokeswoman for the health board that covers Montreal-Nord, said her agency appreciates the many factors that influence decisions whether or not to get vaccinated. Workers have gone door to door and visited high-traffic areas, such as subway stations and the entrances to grocery stores, to share information in multiple languages, she said in an e-mail. The health agency has also staged pop-up vaccination clinics in more than 264 locations.

Monnais said it’s not just about convincing people to get vaccinated, it’s about trying to find out why people won’t – or can’t.

“There’s no one solution to a complex problem,” Monnais said. “Accessibility is a very complex issue and vaccine hesitancy also.”

If your first vaccine in B.C. was AstraZeneca, the second shot is your choice, top doctor says

British Columbia residents who received the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be able to choose if they want to stay with the same shot or take one of the other options.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this year made “the right choice” in getting vaccinated, and helped to ease the COVID-19 caseload in the province.

She said research has shown that it is safe and effective to mix and match COVID-19 vaccine options.

“We know it’s just as good to get a second dose of AstraZeneca or to get a second dose of a mRNA vaccine after having the first dose of AstraZeneca,” she said, referring to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

“Both of these are equally good options.”

Henry said the province is having issues maintaining a steady supply of the Moderna vaccine, which means some who received it as a first dose may get the Pfizer vaccine as their second.

Research out of the U.K. has shown that those who receive a second dose of a different vaccine are more likely to suffer a mild side-effect, such as a sore arm or chills, but not serious ones, she said.

People who received the AstraZeneca vaccine as a first shot will also be offered the opportunity to re-book their second-dose appointments if they aren’t comfortable with the vaccine offered.

Appointments for those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine will open next week, Henry said.

B.C. reported 199 new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 144,866, along with two new deaths.

Henry said 71.8 per cent of the province’s eligible adult population has received a first dose of vaccine.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said more than 60,000 doses of vaccine were administered on Wednesday.

Auditor-General Karen Hogan says the Public Health Agency of Canada was not as prepared as it should have been for the pandemic. She says it ignored years of warnings that it was mismanaging a national emergency stockpile of medical supplies. The Canadian Press

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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