Canada's vaccine rollout received a boost Friday with the approval of a third COVID-19 inoculation, giving the country another immunization option at a time when case counts remain nearly 75 per cent higher than they were at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic.
Health Canada approved a vaccine from AstraZeneca, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said jabs will keep arriving "faster and faster as we head into the spring."
While numbers of cases and hospitalizations have dropped from all-time highs just weeks ago, variants of concern are rising in parts of the country.
Canada's top doctor Theresa Tam said nationally there are 964 reported cases of the variant first detected in the U.K., up from 429 reported two weeks ago. There were also 44 cases of the variant first discovered in South Africa, and two cases of the version first found in Brazil.
"The risk of rapid re-acceleration remains," Tam said. "At the same time new variants continue to emerge ... and can become predominant."
Tam added that average daily case counts in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have increased between eight and 14 per cent over the previous week.
Thunder Bay, Ont., will move into lockdown on Monday after community leaders called for government action following a recent spread of COVID in the city. Outbreaks have been declared there at correctional facilities, among the homeless population and at a number of local schools.
Ontario's Simcoe Muskoka region will also go into lockdown next week after a spike in infections, but restrictions will loosen in seven other areas in the province.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said the country's vaccine rollout will be just one method in slowing the spread of new variants and avoiding a third wave.
He said public health measures aimed at halting transmission such as physical distancing and limiting contacts remain important, adding that jurisdictions that have recently reopened need to keep a keen eye on transmission rates.
"Certainly if there's any indication that the case rates and ... the emergence of variants are increasing, we would need to adjust as appropriate," he said. "But the vaccinations, and certainly the introduction of more vaccines coming to Canada is very, very good news."
Experts advising the Ontario government said this week more contagious variants of COVID-19 are expected to make up 40 per cent of cases by the second week of March.
Ontario reported 1,258 new cases of COVID-19 and 28 more deaths linked to the virus on Friday, with 362 of them in Toronto, 274 in Peel Region and 104 in York Region.
Parts of Atlantic Canada have also seen rising case counts. Newfoundland and Labrador reported four new cases of COVID-19 while Nova Scotia added 10 more to its tally.
Of the new Nova Scotia cases, the province says two are related to travel outside Atlantic Canada.
Prince Edward Island, which reported an outbreak of three cases earlier this week, had one more new case Friday that does not appear to be directly linked to the others.
Quebec, meanwhile, reported 815 new COVID-19 infections and 11 more deaths. Health officials in the province said hospitalizations have dropped by 13, to 620, while intensive care also decreased by three to 119.
Saskatchewan health officials announced 153 new cases and no new deaths, while in Manitoba there were 64 new infections and one additional death.
In Alberta, with 356 new infections and three more deaths, doctors with the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association's pandemic committee urged the province to hold off on possibly easing more restrictions next week. They said they are concerned that new daily active cases have stopped decreasing and the number of new infections that result from each case is growing.
As of Thursday evening, federal data showed there have been 858,217 COVID-19 cases in Canada, including 21,865 deaths, since the beginning of the pandemic.
While Tam warned that COVID-19 variants can spread more quickly and easily become dominant, progress on the vaccine front is a source of optimism, she noted.
"To date, over 1.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered across Canada. And there are early indications of high vaccine efficacy."
Trudeau also announced on Friday a partnership with Mississauga, Ont.'s Verity Pharmaceuticals and the Serum Institute of India that will deliver two million more doses of the AstraZeneca jab — in addition to the 20 million doses Canada already secured with AstraZeneca.
Trudeau said as vaccinations ramp up across the country, many provinces have expanded the number of health professions able to administer a COVID-19 vaccine, and he asked dentists, midwives, pharmacy technicians and retired nurses to lend a hand in the rollout.
"Job 1 remains beating this pandemic," Trudeau said, adding the federal government will continue to send rapid tests to provinces in hopes of getting more Canadians tested.
"We still have to be very careful, especially with new variants out there. We all want to start the spring in the best shape possible."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.
Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press