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Officials urge Canadians to stay vigilant amid grim COVID forecasts for the holidays

Authorities are cautioning Canadians against getting swept up in the excitement of the approaching COVID-19 vaccine rollout, insisting that dropping our guards could have deadly consequences as federal forecasts predict the outbreak's death toll coul
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam responds to a question during a news conference Tuesday, December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Authorities are cautioning Canadians against getting swept up in the excitement of the approaching COVID-19 vaccine rollout, insisting that dropping our guards could have deadly consequences as federal forecasts predict the outbreak's death toll could hit nearly 15,000 come Christmas Day.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is preparing to launch the largest immunization campaign in Canadian history after this week's approval of the Pfizer vaccine, with health officials signalling they're also making plans to distribute a second vaccine that's currently under regulatory review.

But Trudeau warned that the darkest days of the outbreak may still lie ahead as several provinces report record COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations this week, and the government's new modelling predicts that Canada could see as many as 12,000 new infections per day by January.

"A vaccine in a week or in a month won't help you if you get COVID-19 today," Trudeau told reporters on Friday.

"My message to Canadians is simple: Hold tight, and don't give up. We know how to make it through long, cold winters. And we're going to do that once again."

Trudeau confirmed that Canada and the United States have agreed to extend the closure of the border to non-essential travel until at least Jan. 21.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, echoed Trudeau's calls for continued vigilance as she presented updated modelling on Friday portending that Canada could mark several grim milestones this holiday season.

The analysis suggests that Canada's caseload will climb by at least 90,000 new infections by Christmas Day, and that number could go as high as 135,000.

She implored Canadians to continue to limit their contacts as officials at all levels of government work through the complexities of implementing a nation-wide vaccine program.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the Pfizer vaccine doses headed to Canada are set to be divvied up among provinces and territories on a per capita basis.

Ottawa is setting aside additional vaccine doses for First Nations people living on reserve, where health care is a federal responsibility.

However Metis, First Nations and Inuit living in urban areas, for instance, will be considered part of the provincial population, she said.

This is "very concerning" for National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations, who tweeted that the federal government has a responsibility to ensure Indigenous people are vaccinated regardless of whether they live on a reserve.

Meanwhile, Yukon and Nunavut have indicated they would prefer to skip out on the first Pfizer vaccine shipment, suggesting the doses may be too fragile to deliver to remote communities.

Tam said they will make up for that gap by allotting the territories a larger share of the Moderna vaccine, which is already part of the federal distribution plan in anticipation of Health Canada approval.

But in their update, federal officials said all large provinces need to strengthen their COVID-19 responses "now" as the spread of the virus continues along a "rapid growth trajectory."

"Knowing access to safe and effective vaccines for all Canadians is within sight might lead some to think COVID-19 is no longer problem," Tam told reporters. "But the reality is very different."

Infections continue to climb in the six provinces west of the Atlantic region, with rates rising precipitously Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, according to the federal data.

Tam said over the past week, an average of 2,900 patients with COVID-19 were being treated in Canadian hospitals on any given day, including 565 people in intensive care.

Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said the outbreak has pushed health-care facilities in some parts of the country to the point of being "completely overloaded," forcing some to postpone important medical procedures.

In Manitoba, where stricter measures appear to have at least slowed the spread of the virus according to Tam, the death rate due to COVID-19 has increased by more than nine times since Thanksgiving, said the province's chief provincial public health officer.

Dr. Brent Roussin reported 447 more infections and 14 deaths linked to the virus on Friday.

Canada's two most populous provinces expanded lockdown measures as they ramped up for a vaccine rollout next week.

Ontario announced plans to move the COVID-19 hot spots of Windsor-Essex and York Region into lockdown on Monday, while increasing pandemic restrictions for five other jurisdictions.

The province also expects to receive 6,000 doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine on Monday and they will begin to administer them to approximately 2,500 health-care workers in Toronto and Ottawa on Tuesday.

An additional 90,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to arrive later this month and are to be provided to 14 hospitals in COVID-19 hot spot regions. 

The province also expects to receive between 30,000 and 85,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine by the new year, said retired gen. Rick Hiller, who is leading Ontario's vaccine task force.

Ontario is reporting 1,848 new cases of COVID-19, and 45 new deaths due to the virus.

Another region in Quebec learned it's moving into the highest alert level on Friday as the province reported 1,713 new infections and 53 more deaths related to the virus.

Rising cases in areas of the Laurentians, including the popular resort towns of Mont-Tremblant and St-Sauveur, will join the red zone on Monday, closing many public venues and forbidding private gatherings.

Workers and residents at two long-term care homes in Montreal and Quebec City are also readying themselves to receive the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming days.

Alberta reported 1,738 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 18 new deaths, bringing its death total to 684. The province says 684 people are in hospital, including 123 in intensive care.

Alberta continues to have the highest rate of new daily cases in the country.

In Saskatchewan, officials reported 246 new cases of COVID-19. The Ministry of Health says 133 people are in hospital, and 27 people receiving intensive care.

The province's average for daily cases sits at 282.

British Columbia had 737 new cases, while the provincial death toll continued its rapid growth. 

Another 11 people died, for a total of 598 since the pandemic began, most of those coming in the second wave of COVID-19. 

A new community outbreak forced the closure of the Regent Christian Academy. Fraser Health said the private school would close until after the winter break after 30 cases of COVID-19 were detected. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2020.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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