June 20 is the new V-Day.
The retired general heading Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force says that’s the goal for completing a first round of COVID-19 shots in adults, accelerating previous targets.
“Our aim would be to allow the province of Ontario to have a first needle in the arm of every eligible person who wants it by the first day of summer,” Rick Hillier told a news conference Friday with Premier Doug Ford.
Updating a vaccination plan that was instantly outdated by Health Canada’s approval of a fourth vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, and word from Pfizer that it will ship an extra 3.5 million doses to Canada by the end of May, Hillier said Ontario should be giving 100,000 injections daily by early April and rising from there.
“The vaccines are coming in increasingly higher numbers,” he added as the province reported just under 36,000 shots given the previous day. “We will be ready to get a vaccination into you sooner than you ever imagined possible in these coming weeks and several months.”
New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath said the pledge is undermined by the government’s lack of preparedness.
“We still don’t have a working province-wide booking system or call centres up and running even though Doug Ford had months to get his act together,” Horwath added, calling the plan “slow and sloppy.”
“Seniors over 80 in much of the province still don’t know how they will be contacted or where they go to receive life-saving vaccines,” she said. “Doctors and family clinics are still unsure of their role in this vaccination rollout.”
The province-wide booking system is not slated to begin operation until March 15.
Ontario’s plan — which had been criticized for a lack of detail and didn’t previously envision shots for adults under 60 until well into July — still targets older citizens firs,t but the new version adds spring timelines for people who can’t work from home or who have medical conditions putting them at higher risk.
It came as the province announced Toronto and Peel Region would get a little more leeway, moving out from under stay-at-home orders on Monday into the grey or lockdown category of restrictions. That will allow non-essential stores to open to customers again, but at 25 per cent capacity, after weeks of online shopping and curbside pickup only.
There’s also a new focus in the plan on COVID-19 “hot spots” in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area and several other regions to prevent an estimated 3,700 new cases and almost 200 deaths a day by the end of May.
The vaccination speed-up was also made possible by clearance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization to delay second shots by up to four months for people who have already had first jabs, freeing millions of doses to give early protection to more citizens.
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Second doses will be postponed starting next Wednesday, the same day 194,500 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that was approved a week ago — but not for those aged 65 and up — will be administered by appointment to people aged 60 to 64 at 380 pharmacies in Toronto and the Kingston and Windsor areas.
More pharmacies in other regions will be getting AstraZeneca doses later in March from future shipments to serve the early 60s age category, which numbers one million people.
Critics said the fast-changing vaccine situation has rendered time lines in the updated plan obsolete, leaving millions more Ontarians guessing as to when they can expect shots for people in their age group, employment or medical situation.
“It looks like the approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine caught the government of Canada’s biggest province by surprise, because today’s so-called strategy doesn’t even speak to it,” said Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca.
“So a week from now we’ll be back here, with another announcement, causing confusion again.”
Hillier did not provide new details for vaccination schedules in the plan to reflect his June 20 goal.
As written, the updated plan says people who can’t work from home — such as teachers, first responders, child-care and agricultural workers — are in line for vaccinations throughout June, followed by other essential workers in the grocery, pharmacy, manufacturing and financial services sectors and the courts.
Starting in April, the plan also says there will be vaccinations for people in shelters and community living homes, as well as Ontarians with specific health conditions in a hierarchy that begins with organ transplant recipients and moves down a long list through multiple sclerosis, obesity, chemotherapy, liver diseases, respiratory diseases pregnancy, heart disease, diabetes and dementia, to name a few.
It’s unclear how people with such health conditions will be identified and contacted as priorities for vaccination.
The plan says appointments can be booked in early April for people 75 and older, in mid-April for those 70-plus, in late April for adults over 65, and around the second week of May for those between 60 and 64 who haven’t received an AstraZeneca vaccination at a pharmacy.
The hot-spot strategy starting in April and continuing into May will target people of all ages who live in postal codes with the highest intensity of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths as determined by local health units.
That approach was recommended last month in a research paper from the science table of experts advising Ford’s government. Some 920,000 extra doses of vaccines will be given to health units in the GTA, Hamilton, Niagara, Ottawa, Simcoe-Muskoka, Waterloo, the Guelph area, Windsor-Essex and the southwest around St. Thomas.
“If you go by age alone, you would have less success,” a senior public health official told a background briefing before Ford’s news conference. “Age and risk are the two most important things.”
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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