Vaccination efforts stepped up but COVID-19 still a threat

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TORONTO — Health authorities stepped up COVID-19 vaccination efforts on Wednesday amid a stubbornly consistent spread of new infections and related deaths.

As a result, the Public Health Agency of Canada urged caution in the lifting of anti-pandemic restrictions, saying easing should be slow and with special attention to emerging variants that are more contagious.

The vast majority of Canadians are still susceptible to COVID-19, Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“Although COVID-19 activity had been declining nationally from mid-January through mid-February, daily case counts have since levelled off,” Tam said.

“With the continued increase of cases and outbreaks associated with more contagious variants, we must all remain vigilant with public health measures and individual precautions to prevent a rapid shift in trajectory of the epidemic.”

To date, Canada has seen almost 894,000 cases of COVID-19, more than 22,300 of those fatal. Infection rates are now highest among those aged 20-39 years old, latest data show.

Health Canada said it expected Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna would deliver more than two million doses of vaccine in the next two weeks.

In the interim, the pandemic continued its spread, particularly in hard-hit Central Canada.

Ontario reported 1,316 new infections — most in Toronto and surrounding areas — and another 16 deaths. Quebec saw another 792 cases, with 10 more people dying from the disease.

Both provinces reported some progress on the vaccination front, with another 18,000 people in Ontario inoculated and 35,000 more in Quebec.

Manitoba said it would be launching pop-up vaccination sites next week in places such as Flin Flon, Portage La Prairie, Dauphin and Gimli in an effort to reach communities far from existing “super sites” Appointments have to be booked through the provincial call centre.

Saskatchewan, too, said residents will be able to book vaccinations by phone or online starting on Thursday. Premier Scott Moe said the province was in the final stretch of the pandemic and the aim was to start vaccinating people aged 60 to 69 by early next month.

The ongoing pandemic and measures to combat the spread have taken a toll on mental health, Tam said. The problem is especially acute for those without access to their regular support networks, she said.

To help mitigate pandemic-related stress and anxiety, the public health agency announced a new online portal — Wellness Together Canada. Anyone can access immediate, confidential supports for mental health or substance use at any time and at no cost.

Vaccination efforts are also ongoing in federal prisons, where infection rates have reached about 10 per cent — roughly five times the rate of the general population. About 600 offenders have received shots, Correctional Service of Canada reported.

To date, more than 1,400 inmates have contracted the virus and five have died.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press