Seniors in Canada's two largest provinces are facing significantly different timelines for vaccinations, as increasing spread of COVID-19 variants causes concern for health officials across the country.

Quebecers 85 years and older were able to register for COVID-19 vaccinations starting Thursday, while seniors in Ontario must wait weeks to book in that province.

"We're very happy with what we've seen with the vaccinations," Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube said.

He added that there were some minor technical issues, but close to 100,000 people had signed up for appointments the first day.

Some doses were already being administered in Laval, just north of Montreal. Inoculations for the greater Montreal area are to begin Monday.

Ontario’s vaccine distribution committee, blaming a lack of supply for the delay, has said seniors there won’t be able to book appointments until March 15.

Provinces are moving forward with their vaccine distribution plans as federal officials assure the disruptions that have plagued supply lines have been rectified.

Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist with the University of Toronto, said he is concerned that seniors' access to vaccinations will vary wildly based on the province where they live. He said the pandemic, particularly vaccination distribution, is putting a spotlight on issues with the country's fractured health-care system.

"What’s becoming very, very clear is that the interventions are highly variable from province to province," Bowman said.

Quebec starts booking vaccine appointments for seniors; Ontario's not there yet. #COVID19 #vaccines

While all regions are under immense pressure, Bowman said Ontario's delayed rollout should have been avoided.

"People's lives will be damaged or even lost because of these delays."

There's also worry that differing strategies across the country could leave people confused about when they are able to get a vaccine, he added.

In Saskatchewan, health officials reversed earlier advice to people 70 and older to wait to be contacted for vaccinations, after reports some were confused by the process. The Saskatchewan Health Authority said it will launch a tool to book vaccinations online once more doses become available.

Also, the first day Albertans could book vaccine appointments left many frustrated when the government's online portal crashed Wednesday after more than 150,000 people tried to get access to it at about the same time.

The next day, because of long lineups at vaccination clinics in the province, officials issued a plea for people to wait in their cars.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who is in charge of the federal vaccine distribution program, said he understands that provinces may not have a lot of confidence in dose deliveries after a disappointing performance this month.

But supply is already ramping back up, he said. The largest number of doses yet was delivered this week — 643,000 across the country.

"Provinces are now in a position to fully deploy their immunization plans," Fortin said.

More than 40 per cent of seniors over 80 have now received one dose of the vaccine. About 5.5 per cent have received a second dose.

But Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, cautioned it is not time for people to let their guard down.

"COVID-19 remains a serious threat.”

Increasing spread of more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus in Quebec prompted officials there to require primary school students in red pandemic-alert zones, including the greater Montreal area, to wear masks starting March 8.

The B.1.1.7 variant — first detected in the United Kingdom — has become a significant issue in Montreal, where there is still widespread community transmission. The variant is making up eight to 10 per cent of new cases.

Dr. Mylene Drouin, Montreal's public health director, said 40 per cent of cases linked to variants in the city have involved children.

Hospitalizations, however, are declining provincewide. Health authorities are reporting 858 new infections and 16 more deaths.

Ontario's science advisory group predicted Thursday that the more contagious variants will likely make up 40 per cent of new cases in the province by mid-March.

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the group, compared the weeks ahead to a "minefield" and urged vigilance of public-health orders.

The group said vaccinating high-risk communities and seniors will drive down hospitalizations and deaths.

Elsewhere, Alberta reported 32 more variant cases and British Columbia had nine.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said the province is ramping up screening for variants.

"We need to keep cases low and slow," she said.

Across Canada, there has been a total of 20,945 new cases over the past seven days.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2021.

— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Stephanie Taylor in Regina

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