The Ontario government is accelerating its COVID-19 vaccination campaign and opening up appointments for everyone aged 18 and over across the province, while facing criticism for stopping the distribution of a larger share of shots to areas where infections are concentrated.
The province announced Monday that all adults would be eligible to book vaccine appointments across Ontario as of Tuesday morning – at least a week ahead of its original schedule. The announcement follows word from Ottawa in recent days that the country expects to receive even more vaccines than previously scheduled: Ontario is expecting two million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines this week alone.
But opposition leaders and local mayors said Ontario was wrong to stop its two-week blitz of reserving 50 per cent of its vaccines for the hardest-hit areas, including many neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel Region, and return to distributing vaccines across the province by population.
The province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table had originally urged the government to focus vaccinations in hot spots for four weeks, not just two, in order to fight the spread of the disease among factory and warehouse workers and others who cannot work from home.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the two-week blitz had boosted vaccination rates in hot-spot communities ahead of other areas. With more vaccines now flowing into Ontario, she said local public-health agencies can divert more doses to hot spots as they see fit.
“They will be targeting those areas within their regions with extra doses of the vaccines,” Ms. Elliott said.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said opening up appointments to all adults while cutting the extra allocation for hot spots means his city will have many fewer doses than it had last week and could have trouble meeting demand. A statement from him and a group of Greater Toronto Area mayors also warned they will need more vaccines to keep up.
“It is a concern that there is demand being added each and every day, sometimes with more consultation than others, and that there’s only so much vaccine to go around,” Mr. Tory said. “And we have less vaccines this week than we had last week.”
Toronto Public Health said it expects to receive 179,020 doses this week, down from the 337,170 doses it received last week. About 60 per cent of adults in Toronto have been vaccinated with at least one dose, the city says. Ontario’s goal is to have 65 per cent of adults vaccinated with one dose by month’s end, when appointments will be opened up to 12- to 17-year-olds.
Opposition MPPs called on Ontario to keep its hot-spot strategy, arguing the focus needs to remain on the areas where COVID-19 is spreading. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said focusing on harder-hit regions would bring case numbers down, take the burden off the health care system and potentially end lockdowns sooner.
“It seems only logical that the places where the virus continues to spread should be the places where the vaccines go,” she said.
Liberal MPP John Fraser said the government should also consider speeding up second doses to older adults – as well as keeping more of the doses flowing into areas where the virus is being transmitted.
“What we’re talking about is trying to stop a virus that’s spreading very quickly,” he said. “If we don’t get that under control, it’s going to affect the rest of the province. It’s a fire.”
Nathan Stall, a geriatrician and member of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said the extra supply to hot spots was desperately needed two weeks ago. But now, he said, supply isn’t the only issue in some communities. He noted some clinics had been struggling to fill appointments and opened up eligibility to anyone over 18 in Toronto on the weekend.
He said more focus needs to be on reaching homebound seniors who aren’t able to travel to clinics, as well as providing second doses to seniors in hot spots.
“I think that’s where the extra supply definitely could have been used,” he said. “A lot of these clinics are hamstrung because they would like to be able to provide second doses to 90-year-olds and they’re having to turn them away at the door, literally.”
Lawrence Loh, Medical Officer of Health for Peel Region, which is the hardest hit area in the province, said Peel is continuing with its planned 25,000 vaccine appointments a day this week. He called the province’s accelerated rollout “welcome news” and said Peel continues to monitor vaccine supply and will adjust capacity as needed.
Ontario has also faced mounting pressure to reconsider its ban on outdoor activities such as golf, tennis and basketball in its current stay-at-home order, which it has extended to June 2. The move has been roundly criticized by public-health experts who point out that the risk of outdoor transmission is much lower than indoors.
Ms. Elliott suggested Monday that some outdoor activities could be allowed before June 2, when the order expires unless it is extended again. She also said allowing summer camps for children, which Premier Doug Ford on the weekend had pledged would reopen, was under consideration. But Ms. Elliott said allowing camps or outdoor activities will depend on the province’s infection numbers and the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and intensive care units.
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