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ONTARIO: Province confirms three more cases of contagious new strain of COVID-19

The provincial government has faced criticism for its vaccine rollout in recent weeks
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TORONTO — Ontario defended its COVID-19 vaccination efforts Monday as the province confirmed three more cases of a contagious new strain of the virus.

The provincial government has faced criticism for its vaccine rollout in recent weeks, with observers noting the province has so far administered roughly 45,000 of the more than 148,000 shots it has received.

But the province's chief medical officer of health on Monday rejected the suggestion that there are upwards of 100,000 doses "sitting in the fridge," saying those numbers don't include the doses of the newly received Moderna vaccine that were doled out over the weekend. 

Dr. David Williams said officials haven't yet tallied how many of the Moderna shots were given in its first few days of distribution, and that the province is moving through its stock of COVID-19 shots "fairly aggressively."

Asked why Ontario's immunization rate is lower than other provinces and territories, Williams attributed that to its greater population, adding the province is catching up in terms of the total number of vaccines administered.

Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, acknowledged there have been "a few bumps in the road" in the province's immunization campaign but said he is confident in the plan. 

"We're ramping it up and you're going to see a significant difference over the next few weeks," the premier said.

Ford spoke after a health-care worker became the first person in the province to receive both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, which is largely being used in hospitals and similar settings due to its storage requirements.

Anita Quidangen was given her second dose at Toronto's University Health Network, the first of five health-care workers slated to cross that milestone Monday. She urged others to follow in her footsteps as the province continues its rollout of the two COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use in Canada.

The province reported it has administered 45,380 COVID-19 vaccines to Ontarians as of Monday afternoon.

Opposition legislators said the province needs to explain why it is lagging behind on vaccine distribution.

"The vaccine roll-out of our current supply is far too slow and we know that the longer we delay, the more lives will be lost,” Liberal health critic John Fraser said in a statement.

Provincial health officials also confirmed additional cases of a contagious new strain of COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom, all three of them in the Toronto area.

Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, said two of the cases – one in Toronto and one in nearby York Region – had recently travelled to the U.K.

She said the third case, from Peel Region, is a close contact of someone who recently travelled to Dubai.

The province now has a total of six confirmed cases of the new strain.

The first known cases were logged last month in a couple from Durham Region who had also come in contact with someone returning from the U.K.

The Public Health Agency of Canada previously said early data suggests the new strain may be more transmissible, but ongoing research so far indicates the variant does not impact vaccine effectiveness.

Health officials have said they do not plan to report the different strains out separately in provincial summary reports.

Ontario reported 3,270 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and 29 new deaths related to the novel coronavirus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said 917 cases were in Toronto, 581 in Peel Region, 389 in York Region and 246 in Windsor-Essex County. 

There were 1,190 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ontario, including 333 patients in intensive care. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2021. 

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press