Ontario reports 3,056 new COVID-19 cases, adjusts vaccine schedule due to delays

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A shipping delay from the pharmaceutical giant producing a key COVID-19 vaccine will in turn slow the pace at which some Ontario residents can be inoculated, the province's top doctor announced Saturday amid a continued spike in virus cases and related deaths.

Dr. David Williams said some of those in line for Pfizer-BioNTech's coveted vaccine will have to wait longer than expected to receive their necessary second dose as the province tries to navigate the fallout from an overseas production delay.

The company announced on Friday that issues at its facility in Belgium are forcing it to slow vaccine shipments to several countries, including Canada. Federal officials later revealed that only half of Canada's promised doses of the Pfizer vaccine will arrive in the country next month.

Williams said the province would accordingly adjust the vaccination schedule for those tapped to be immunized with the Pfizer product, but noted the full impact of the shipping delay is still emerging.

"We are working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to determine the exact timing and amount of these reductions, and we will assess and take appropriate action to ensure we can continue providing our most vulnerable with vaccines," Williams said in a statement.

"We know the federal government is working to secure more supply and when they are able to deliver more vaccines, we will be ready to administer them."

Williams said long-term care residents, essential caregivers and staff — the first group cleared for inoculation under the provincial vaccination strategy — will receive their second dose of Pfizer vaccine between 21 and 27 days after their initial shot. The delay adds only a week to the original timetable and does not affect those receiving the vaccine developed by pharmaceutical firm Moderna.

The delay could be longer for anyone else slated for the Pfizer vaccine, Williams said, noting second doses could take place anywhere from 21 to 42 days after the initial one is administered. The province originally hoped to offer second shots about 21 days after administering a preliminary dose.

Williams said the new timetable is in line with recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

"NACI has indicated that while efforts should be made to vaccinate according to the recommended schedules, some jurisdictions may maximize the number of individuals benefiting from a first dose of vaccine by delaying the second dose until further supplies of the vaccine become available, preferably within 42 days of receipt of the first dose," he said.

At least 189,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered so far under Ontario's current plan, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott.

Word of the vaccine schedule adjustments came as Ontario reported 3,056 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, along with 51 new deaths related to the virus.

Hospitalizations related to COVID-19 stand at 1,632, with 397 patients in intensive care.

Elliott said Toronto and the neighbouring regions of Peel and York continue to post the highest infection rates in the province. She said 903 of the most recent diagnoses were found in Toronto, with 639 in Peel and 283 in York.

Some of those regions are among those targeted by a government blitz of big-box stores which got underway on Saturday.

The province said earlier this week it would send 50 inspectors to stores in five regions — Toronto, Hamilton, Peel, York and Durham. They'll be looking to ensure the retailers are complying with the province's tightened public health rules, which went into effect on Thursday along with a provincewide stay-at-home order meant to curb the spread of the virus.

Labour Minister Monte McNaughton has said inspectors will focus on compliance with masking and physical distancing rules, as well as other health guidelines.

He said they'll have the authority to temporarily shut down facilities found to be breaching the rules, and to disperse groups of more than five people.

The minister said inspectors will also be able to issue tickets of up to $750 to management, workers or customers if they're not abiding by the measures.

Premier Doug Ford, who has faced criticism for allowing big-box stores to remain open for on-site shopping while smaller businesses are restricted to curbside pickup or online sales, vowed this week to crack down on big lineups and other infractions at large retailers.

The weekend blitz comes days after the province enacted an order requiring residents to stay at home for all but essential purposes, such as shopping for groceries or accessing health care.

The province has said police will be enforcing the order but won't have the power to stop people randomly to check their reasons for being outside.

Ontario's stricter measures were announced after grim projections on COVID-19 suggested the health system could be overwhelmed if cases continue to rise at current rates.

But even so, Toronto police announced they had arrested and charged the organizers of two large gatherings in the city's downtown core.

Both organizers were charged with common nuisance, while police said an officer who was trying to break up one of the gatherings was allegedly assaulted.

A 22-year-old man has been charged with assaulting a police officer and obstructing police.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2021.

The Canadian Press