Two of Canada's most populous provinces showed promising signs of containing their COVID-19 cases Thursday, as the pandemic urgency focused elsewhere on surges in Alberta and Nova Scotia and efforts to vaccinate teenagers before the next school year.
Ontario reported 3,424 new cases Thursday and 26 more deaths linked to the virus. While that's an increase from 2,941 reported Wednesday, the province's seven-day average dropped to 3,369 from a record-high 4,348 on April 19.
The slight levelling off came as the province said it had administered a record 141,000 vaccines Wednesday, while over in Quebec, Health Minister Christian Dube noted declines in case counts, hospitalizations and test positivity rates were pushing his province "in the right direction."
Eyes remain on Nova Scotia, however, where an alarming upswing pushed daily counts to a pandemic-high of 182 on Thursday, following a 175-case tally a day before.
Alberta meanwhile, reported 2,271 cases on Wednesday, leading to a slew of new containment measures.
Vaccine strategy and lockdown measures are playing a role in Ontario's dropping daily average, infectious disease doctor Zain Chagla said in an interview.
And promising provincial data on vaccine effectiveness may give other jurisdictions hope that things can turn around quickly, especially if inoculations are prioritized to those who need them most.
"The big thing now is vaccinating people in places where density of transmission is high," Chagla said.
"So having that mentality of, we're not only vaccinating to a particular age but scaling vaccines in populations that have been hit hard throughout this pandemic, that will lead to not only (a decrease) in case counts but also hospitalizations and deaths."
Nova Scotia, which was mostly spared by COVID-19 in earlier stages of the pandemic, has been hit hard lately, prompting new restrictive measures last week, including a $2,000 fine for anyone caught leaving their counties for non-essential reasons.
Premier Iain Rankin said he was "frustrated" by his province's rising case numbers.
"I don't know what more I can say to Nova Scotians to make sure they take this issue seriously," he said.
Quebec reported 907 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, along with seven more deaths attributed to the virus.
Nunavut reported 12 new cases, all in the 8,000-population capital of Iqaluit, with chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson saying house parties were to blame.
Data released by Public Health Ontario this week showed how effective Canada's approved COVID-19 vaccines have been.
The agency found that from Dec. 14, 2020 — the beginning of the rollout — to April 17, only 2,223 people tested positive for COVID-19 out of almost 3.5 million people vaccinated with at least one dose in Ontario.
The majority of those cases — 66.9 per cent — occurred within 14 days of receiving a first dose, when immunity had not yet been established. Less than four per cent of post-vaccination COVID-19 cases happened seven or more days following a second dose.
"It's not perfect data but you do see this very clear signal that people's risk of symptomatic COVID-19, hospitalization and death essentially plummets 14 days after getting a single dose of a vaccine," Chagla said.
People aged 50 and older across Ontario are among new groups who can now book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment provincewide.
Those with high-risk health conditions and a number of employees who cannot work from home are also eligible to get the shot, as is anyone over the age of 18 in Peel Region, one of Ontario's most badly hit areas.
Ontario says it expects 65 per cent of adults to have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May, and eligibility could soon open to teenagers following Health Canada's authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in 12- to -15-year-olds on Wednesday.
Other provinces are making similar plans.
The Northwest Territories said it would open vaccine eligibility for teens starting Thursday, while Alberta will allow booking up from that age range as of Monday.
Manitoba said it will start vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds on May 21.
Dube said he's waiting for details on a formal plan but said youth between the ages of 12 and 17 can expect to be offered a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of June and be fully vaccinated by the time they return to school in September.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert with the University of Toronto, said vaccinating teenagers marks an important step in Canada's rollout.
"Just having adults immunized is not enough to get to that herd immunity point," Banerji said.
While kids are less likely to suffer severe disease from a COVID infection, Banerji said they have played a role in spreading the virus.
"For a long time people were saying that children were not really contributing to community spread, that it was a one-way street," she said. "I've always disagreed with that."
Canada achieved a new milestone in its vaccination program this week, surpassing the vaccination rate in the United States for the first time.
The Our World in Data project, which tracks vaccinations around the world, says the United States injected doses at a rate of 6.4 doses for every 1,000 people on Wednesday. Canada injected 6.6 doses for every 1,000 people.
Canada had vaccinated more than 14.5 million people with at least one dose as of Thursday, which represents 41 per cent of the adult population.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021.
Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press