The race is on for junior seniors hoping to get the jab.
On Wednesday, Ontario will reveal an initial list of 380 pharmacies getting AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines, setting the stage for a flurry of bookings with shots to begin this week in the Toronto, Windsor and Kingston areas for adults aged 60 to 64.
Details on locations were still being finalized Tuesday, Health Minister Christine Elliott said as eligible residents of the three pilot project regions snooped around their local drug stores with an eye to getting a head start.
“We will be able to deliver them before expiry,” she added in a reference to the April 2 best-before date on Ontario’s first shipment of 194,500 doses received Tuesday.
Health Canada has not approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for anyone 65 or older, prompting the province to designate it for the 1 million Ontarians in their early 60s. About 95 per cent of COVID-19 deaths are in people over 60.
While some pharmacies like Rexall had websites set up to preregister for potential appointments, others did not as of late Tuesday afternoon. A pharmacist at one west-end Toronto drugstore, for example, said he did not have details yet on how many doses were expected. Another had no idea when bookings would be taken.
The limited launch and apparent lack of information fuelled criticism Premier Doug Ford’s government has been slow to react in the wake of Health Canada’s approval of the vaccine almost two weeks ago. It is expected the government will roll out future shipments of AstraZeneca vaccines to more pharmacies in more regions. There are about 4,600 pharmacies in Ontario.
“I’m not confident that the sense of urgency required is there,” said Liberal MPP and health critic John Fraser (Ottawa South).
“Why aren’t we ready to turn on the tap?”
Elliott said the list of pharmacies was not complete because two or three dozen agreements were in the process of coming together, with contingency plans in place.
“If the ones that aren’t signing right now haven’t been done, we will find 20 or 30 pharmacies that will be able to deliver it,” she told MPPs in the legislature’s daily question period.
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“The vaccines will not be wasted.”
Meanwhile, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones — whose ministry is in charge of Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force — revealed six public health units in Ontario with their own vaccine booking systems, now taking appointments for seniors 80 and up, will not switch to a provincial booking system scheduled to launch March 15.
New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath said that could be “pretty confusing” for people hoping to get shots as the number of vaccines arriving grows in the coming months. Previously, the government had said health units would switch to the provincial system.
“When everything changes every day, it leaves me wondering why the government doesn’t have its act together,” she said.
Elliott defended what critics have called a slow timeline for getting the provincial online and telephone appointment booking system into operation. A number of hospitals and about one-third of Ontario’s 34 health units have booking systems in place as they vaccinate the 80-plus age group.
Noting that similar systems in Alberta and other areas have crashed when launched because of heavy demand, “we want to make sure that our system will not do so,” she said.
Horwath raised further concerns that nurses and others staffing vaccination clinics might have to be “the bouncers of scofflaws” because people might abuse the honour system in place for Ontarians who qualify to jump the line and get shots because they have one of the two dozen medical conditions that give them priority.
Jones said “much of this (vaccination) work is going to be done in conjunction with where you are getting your treatment” for the eligible conditions and that people trying to book appointments will be asked screening questions to determine if they qualify.
But some medical experts said they doubt things will run that smoothly because several million Ontarians have those medical conditions — or will claim to — and will undoubtedly end up at mass vaccination clinics in phase two of the rollout.
The lack of required proof for medical conditions is a recipe for inequity, said Dr. Michael Warner, an intensive care physician at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto.
“Phase two will be The Hunger Games. Those who really need to be vaccinated early will be pushed down the list by those with better internet connections, the ability to take time off work and a moral compass that allows them to jump the queue,” he added.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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