Canada has secured the earlier than expected arrival of more COVID-19 vaccine doses, a welcome bright light for health officials, but one they say won’t stop a growing surge in cases before the holidays.
Across the country, the average number of daily new COVID-19 cases continued to climb on Tuesday and is up by more than 2,000 from just a month ago. In Ontario, hospitals have been told to activate emergency plans in anticipation of a spike in the number of COVID-19 patients. Quebec, meanwhile, announced new lockdown measures that will begin on Dec. 25.
Despite the optimism of the first vaccines being administered across Canada this week, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam on Tuesday emphasized the need to keep following public health rules.
“The vaccine, as it starts, it’s going to be small amounts,” Dr. Tam said. “That’s not going to be enough to extinguish any fires.”
Even as more people celebrated getting their first shots in Ontario, the agency that oversees the province’s health care delivery asked hospitals to clear beds to prepare to treat more patients with the coronavirus.
In a memo sent on Tuesday and obtained by The Globe and Mail, hospitals in the province’s lock-down zones in and around Toronto and in Windsor-Essex as well as in high-risk zones around the Greater Toronto Area were told to clear up to 15 per cent of beds within 48 hours. The document from Ontario Health, which was first reported by CBC, advised hospitals to postpone non-emergency surgery that requires in-hospital post-operative care.
Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said in a statement that the situation in the hospitals reflects the level of spread in the community. On Tuesday, Ms. Elliott announced what she called a “disturbing” record of more than 2,000 new cases in the province.
This week, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ontario hit numbers not seen since May, and 249 of the 921 patients are in intensive care.
The Ontario Hospital Association will hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to address the crisis.
“We are just so extremely concerned about what we’ve seen in recent days about the trajectory of the pandemic,” president Anthony Dale said on Tuesday.
In the United States and the Netherlands, cases of COVID-19 have risen after significant national holidays, making the warning from Ontario Health a week before many people in Canada take vacation all the more concerning.
“We are getting very worried as our numbers keep climbing each day as we march towards Christmas,” Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at the University Health Network and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said on Tuesday. “We expect an additional massive spike within the two weeks after that.”
While public health officials delivered a reality check on another holiday that has to be celebrated at a distance, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered another glimmer of hope on Tuesday.
At a press conference in Ottawa, Mr. Trudeau announced Canada will receive 168,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine in December, pending approval from the federal health regulator. Canada is on track to approve the Moderna vaccine this month. The delivery means 84,000 people can be inoculated from the shipments of the two-shot vaccine regimen.
Canada is buying a total of 40 million doses from the U.S.-based vaccine manufacturer.
Mr. Trudeau also said another 200,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will arrive next week – far more than the 30,000 estimate Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand gave reporters on Monday.
By the end of March, Canada expects to receive a total of six million vaccine doses, enough for three million Canadians. That’s about eight per cent of the population, compared to the 30 per cent of Americans the United States government is expecting to vaccinate in the same time frame.
Ms. Anand suggested the difference is in part due to the timeline Canada negotiated for vaccine delivery. In the contracts with the vaccine manufacturers, which have not been made public, Ms. Anand said the government negotiated “windows of delivery” in all four quarters of 2021.
“We have to remember that we weren’t expecting to get December doses,” Ms. Anand said at another point in the press conference. She also noted that Canada negotiated the vaccine contracts before the federal government could know when a vaccine would be approved.
“We are at the front of the line,” she said, noting that all Canadians will be able to get their shots by the end of 2021. That’s as much as six months after the U.S. says it is expecting to be able to inoculate all Americans.
Hampering the speed at which Canada can receive vaccines is the fact that they aren’t being manufactured domestically, Ms. Anand said. The United States has also spent billions more than Canada to help develop and manufacture vaccines.
The Moderna vaccine, which is easier to transport and store than the Pfizer one, will “be directed to the north, as well as to remote and Indigenous communities,” Mr. Trudeau said. However, he could not say if all of that vaccine would go there.
Ontario is also hoping to use the Moderna vaccine to inoculate people in long-term care homes, retired general Rick Hillier, who heads the province’s vaccine task force, said on Thursday. He said the hardest-hit long-term care homes, including those in lockdown zones, will be the first in the province to get the Moderna vaccine.
Mr. Hillier said Ontario will receive enough vaccines by March to vaccinate 1.2 million of the province’s estimated 1.4 million health-care workers, long-term care workers and residents.
Canada is now averaging more than 6,540 new COVID-19 cases daily, Dr. Tam said. She told reporters the steady rise in cases shows efforts by provinces to strike a balance between stopping the spread of COVID-19 and keeping the economy afloat have not worked. She noted that cases have levelled off in Manitoba, which has enacted among the strictest second-wave lockdowns.
Hours after her comments, Quebec Premier François Legault unveiled new restrictions that will take effect on Dec. 25 in an effort to limit any post-Christmas spike in cases. Non-essential retail will close between Dec. 25 and Jan. 11, primary schools will join secondary schools and go virtual for the first full week of January, and offices are being urged to close.
With reports from Laura Stone in Toronto and Les Perreaux in Montreal.
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