A new brief from Ontario’s Science Advisory Table recommends immediately shifting half of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine supply to everyone 16 and up in the 74 hardest hit neighbourhoods to dramatically cut case counts, hospitalizations and deaths.
The report, published Friday by the independent panel of scientists, doctors and researchers, suggests the other half of the vaccine supply be equally distributed across the province with an age-based prioritization approach.
Under the province’s current plan, announced April 7, only 25 per cent of vaccines are being distributed to all 114 hot spots.
But by reallocating half of some three million doses to areas most at risk of infection over 30 days (the researchers assumed this started on April 9), the researchers say tens of thousands of infections would be prevented, along with hospitalizations, ICU visits and deaths across the province by early June.
“If we now really go in heavily with 50 per cent of our doses, we will basically start to not only protect these 74 neighbourhoods, but also the province,” said Peter Juni, scientific director of the science advisory table. “If we do not get the high-burden neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel under control, the entire province will suffer.”
These high-risk neighbourhoods are home to tens of thousands of essential workers, many of whom don’t have paid sick leave and live in homes with extended family members where the virus can spread quickly if it is brought in.
Early in the province’s vaccination rollout, vaccines were not getting to these high-priority neighbourhoods. By April 5, the authors noted, residents living in neighbourhoods with the lowest risk of COVID-19 transmission were 1.5 times more likely to have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to neighbourhoods with the highest infection risk.
Reallocating 50 per cent of the next three million vaccines to essential workers, their families and others who live in COVID-19 hot spots — representing 20 per cent of areas with the highest incidence of the virus — would have a trickle-down effect in which the broader population living outside these areas is more protected, said Sophia Ikura, executive director of the Health Commons Solutions Lab at Sinai Health System, and one of the report’s authors.
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She noted that with this approach, two things happen: one, the amount of the virus circulating in hotspot communities drops, resulting in indirect protection; and two, because many residents of hotspot communities work in places across the city, broader transmission is also reduced.
“It’s using the same amount of vaccine, but much more effectively in a really smart, focused fashion,” she said.
If the province were to do what the researchers suggest, the report projects that between April 9 and June 7, overall infections in Ontario would drop from 231,531 to 174,738, a difference of 56,793. As a result, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths would also decrease.
Juni noted that the reallocation plan won’t work without working with community groups and leaders on the ground in the most affected communities. But long lines at recent pop-up clinics in the city’s hard-hit northwest corner indicate that even in communities that have reason to distrust the system, there’s a lot of interest in vaccines.
“We cannot move at the speed of light, we need to move at the speed of trust,” he said.
“If we help each other and keep the spirit of solidarity going, that’s exactly what we need to do to get this thing under control.”
May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11
Kenyon Wallace is a Toronto-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @KenyonWallace or reach him via email: [email protected]
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