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Limited supplies hamper Ontario’s plan for vaccinations in COVID-19 hot zones


Limited supplies hamper Ontario’s plan for vaccinations in COVID-19 hot zones

Intended as a shot in the arm for areas hard-hit by COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford’s week-old promise to vaccinate everyone 18 and older in designated hot zones — including essential workers — is turning into cold comfort.

High demand for jabs, limited supply of doses and poor communications have led to another pandemic letdown that could have been avoided as the few available spots to date were filled as quickly as the premier raised expectations, observers say.

A frustrated Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie summed it up Wednesday in seeking to correct the impression that anyone over 18 can expect to be inoculated soon and urging the province to speak with “greater clarity” in future.

“I know the premier announced this with the best of intentions, but in order to vaccinate everyone 18 years of age and older in these hot spot postal codes, we need more vaccines,” she told a news conference, echoing concerns from Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown.

“When these mobile and pop-up clinics begin, they will target the highest-risk populations within these hot spot postal codes. For example, certain blocks in high-risk neighbourhoods … or education workers,” Crombie added.

In just one example, the sense of disappointment was fuelled when the downtown University Health Network stopped taking registrations from nearby hot zones for anyone under the priority age category of 50 and older, saying people had signed up at four times the rate of available vaccines.

The situation has left Ford and his government on the defensive once again.

“Why did the premier tell thousands of Ontarians that they could get vaccinated ‘right now’ when he knew there was no plan to do so?” New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath asked Wednesday in the legislature’s daily question period.

Health Minister Christine Elliott replied that local health units “are very well aware of the plan. They are implementing it in their own ways.”

Ford acknowledged later — as several other vaccination clinics in the GTA were cancelled for the coming days — that doses aren’t coming in from the federal government as quickly as expected, mainly from Moderna.

“We’re in a tough position,” he said. “But we’re taking a targeted approach into the hot areas right now and really focusing on that.”

Ford should have been more specific with that message last week when it was first announced, said University of Waterloo epidemiologist Todd Coleman, who previously served with the regional health unit for Middlesex-London.

“The government is not making it easy to understand who is eligible or the way people could put themselves on some sort of list,” Coleman said.

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Green Leader Mike Schreiner said it’s sad that some of the areas with the lowest rates of COVID-19 have the highest rates of vaccination.

“The vaccine rollout is inaccessible to those that need to be protected the most,” Schreiner said. “Until we have safe workplaces, we will be unable to contain the spread.”

The lack of detail leaves a pandemic-weary population frightened by worsening infection trends seeking any way possible to get an appointment, including those living in safer circumstances or working from home who can afford to wait for shots, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

“We are missing a basic conversation about how we need to prioritize,” he added. “That leaves a lot of wiggle room for people to interpret and it leaves a lot of wiggle room for Mr. Ford.”

In Peel Region, as in Toronto, pop-up and mobile clinics in hot zones are not being widely advertised to prevent people who are not part of the target groups from flooding in.

A senior government source said Ford’s announcement last week was misinterpreted and anyone who extrapolated that vaccinations for anyone 18 and older in hot zones would be widely and quickly available was mistaken.

“Nowhere did we signal that,” added the source, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “I recognize there’s a lot of people anxious to get booked. I think people still, unfortunately, do need to be a bit more patient.

“Never did we say you can book through the provincial portal. It was more when these mobile clinics come into your neighbourhood, if you’re 18 and over, and obviously we were still working out a lot of details with the public health units. These things don’t necessarily happen overnight.”

The Star reported last week that Ford said mobile and pop-up clinics would be focused on highly affected neighbourhoods to have “the greatest impact as quickly as possible.”

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, whose ministry oversees the province’s vaccination task force, told reporters she could not remember when health units were told of the 18-plus plan and rejected calls from opposition parties to redirect vaccines to hot zones from areas with lower rates of COVID-19.

“There are high-risk communities in many public health units,” she added. “I do not believe the solution is to pull vaccines away from other communities.”

Ford has pledged to have vaccinations in the arms of 40 per cent of willing Ontario adults by the time his 28-day stay-at-home order expires on May 6, a target that should be exceeded if shipments of vaccines procured by the federal government continue arriving as expected and are injected at the current pace.

The province vaccinated almost 113,000 people on Tuesday. More than 3.4 million Ontarians have had at least one dose, and more than 337,200 have been given two doses in the province of almost 15 million people.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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