Governments are looking at new limits for travel both into and within Canada, as the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to set heartbreaking records.
On a positive note, Canada hit a new milestone for vaccinations, with 25 per cent of the population vaccinated with at least one dose, as the number of people climbed over 9.5 million Tuesday afternoon.
Generation-X Canadians flocked to make appointments for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as several provinces lowered the eligible age, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
But even as vaccinations were flowing, Ontario’s scientific advisers warned the province’s hospitals are “buckling” as hospitalizations and critical care loads continued to grow.
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, reported record numbers of active cases, hospitalizations and patients in critical care across the country.
An average of almost 1,200 people are now in intensive care daily with COVID-19, about half of them on ventilators. On April 12, the most recent single-day statistics available, there was a one-day record of 599 people on ventilators due to COVID-19.
COVID-19 deaths also grew in the last week, to an average of 44 deaths per day, after sitting close to 30 people a day over the last two months.
Much of it is being driven by new variants, with more than 66,000 confirmed variant cases in Canada now, 96 per cent of them B.1.1.7. That is twice the number of confirmed variant cases just one week ago.
In a bid to keep even more variants from entering Canada, Trudeau said Tuesday the use of quarantine hotels for international air travellers will continue until at least May 21, as will testing requirements for air and land-border arrivals.
He defended the government against criticism it didn’t move fast enough to enforce quarantines for travellers, but said they are considering additional measures.
“We are continuing to look at more and I have asked our officials to look carefully at, for example, what the U.K. has done very recently on suspending flights from India,” he said.
Although Canada’s borders are officially closed, thousands of people, mostly Canadians, still cross into the country every week. Health Canada says about one per cent of international air travellers are testing positive for COVID-19 during their three-day quarantine, but can’t yet provide data for how many tested positive after 10 days.
India has reported more than 250,000 new cases of COVID-19 daily this week and doctors are investigating whether another new variant, known as B.1.617, may be part of the reason.
Last December, Canada suspended flights from the U.K. for just over two weeks due to concerns about the COVID-19 variant that first emerged there.
In the last two weeks, 117 international flights arrived with at least one passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19, including 29 flights from Delhi, 20 from the United States and 24 from Europe.
Provincial governments are also moving to restrict travel within Canada. Ontario and Nova Scotia are barring entry to non-essential travellers who aren’t residents, while British Columbia is looking at doing periodic police roadblocks at ferry terminals and Vancouver-area highways to discourage recreational travel even within the province.
Ontario reported almost 3,500 new cases Tuesday, the first time since April 12 the number was below 4,000. But hospitalizations, critical care admissions and patients on a ventilator all rose overnight, prompting new warnings from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table that hospitals are on the brink. The advisers said essential workers needed to be vaccinated faster and offered sick leave.
Public health chiefs in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region moved on their own to order any workplace closed that has had five or more positive cases in the last two weeks.
Late Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s office said he was isolating in Toronto after a member of his staff who was in close contact with him tested positive for COVID-19.
The statement said the premier has tested negative and will follow all public health advice for close contacts.
It said Ford will continue leading his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic while in isolation, including briefings with officials and communicating with the public.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province is examining what it can do to handle “gaps” in federal sick pay.
Elliott received her vaccine from AstraZeneca weeks ago, and now that Ontario is among the provinces that lowered the eligible age to 40, Trudeau and other federal leaders can now follow suit.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization cancelled a planned briefing to update its guidance on what age groups should get the AstraZeneca doses, as more information on the risk of very rare blood clots has now emerged. NACI is still deliberating on what advice to provide.
Three Canadians, including one newly reported in New Brunswick Tuesday, have now had the blood clots, out of more than 700,000 doses given. All three — a woman over 55 in Quebec, a man in his 60s in Alberta and a woman in her 30s in New Brunswick — are recovering at home.
Several provinces didn’t wait for NACI. Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. all cut the age from 55 to 40, although Saskatchewan said it has already used up much of the AstraZeneca supply it has received. Quebec is cutting it to 45 on Wednesday.
Albertans under 55 lined up at mass vaccination clinics in both Calgary and Edmonton.
“It’s about time,” said Jody Dewaal, 52, who was lined up at Expo Centre in Edmonton. “We’ve been waiting. I have senior parents and I have a child who has asthma, so we just like to have some kind of protection.”
Trudeau, 49, told pharmacists during a virtual meeting Tuesday morning that he intends to be vaccinated at a pharmacy, publicly, as soon as his office can work out the details.
While Freeland was busy becoming the first female finance minister to table a budget in the House of Commons this week, she dispatched her kids to go online and find her an appointment.
“My daughter said we’re on a wait-list, so I have to check on that after this,” she said. “But as soon as I can, I’ll get mine too and I hope at a local pharmacy.”
O’Toole said he was booked for Saturday, while Singh is being vaccinated Wednesday.
Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna appeared to be fastest on the booking button, posting photos on social media Tuesday of herself getting the AstraZeneca shot in Ottawa.
— With files from Fakiha Baig in Edmonton.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press