In the next phase of its COVID-19 vaccination plan, Ontario plans to offer a minimum of 340,000 vaccine doses per day.
Retired general Rick Hillier, chair of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force, laid out the plan during a media conference at Queen’s Park on Wednesday (February 24).
So far, Ontario has administered just over 600,000 vaccine doses, with more than 250,000 people fully vaccinated — representing around 1.7 per cent of Ontario’s population. Most of these vaccinations have been administered to residents and staff of long-term care homes.
“This is a ponderous time for us,” Hillier said, explaining the slow rate of vaccinations. “We’re actually taking the vaccine to people, as opposed to having people come to mass vaccination centres for the most part. And of course that’s more time consuming, more difficult to do, and slightly slower than what we’d want.”
“But we’re averaging 16 to 18,000 doses per day — a little bit more on some days — and we will pick up that pace in the next several days going forward,” he added. “And then as we open up the mass vaccination sites after that, the pace will pick up quite dramatically.”
Hillier said the current focus is on completing vaccinations of residents of long-term care homes and high-risk retirement homes, with around 90 per cent of these residents having already received their first dose of the vaccine, as well as administering second doses to these residents and health care workers. Another focus is on vaccinations in remote communities, mainly in northern Ontario, including First Nations.
With more vaccine doses arriving in the first week of March, the province will focus on completing vaccinations of the residents of all 626 long-term care homes and all 775 retirement homes in Ontario — more than 100,000 people.
The next priority will be patient-facing health care professionals who stand the greatest risk of contracting the virus, as well as remote communities and First Nations, including First Nations Elder care homes and Elders in the community.
Hillier pointed out that, beginning March 1st, 10 per cent of vaccine doses will be set aside so the province can respond to vaccine disruptions or critical outbreaks.
Public health units are coordinating vaccine distribution, Hillier said, because they have the expertise and knowledge of the local community. While hospitals will be involved in vaccination efforts, the province will not rely on them as they need to be prepared to focus on caring for COVID-19 patients during outbreaks.
Along with health units, hospitals, and primary care professionals, Hillier said pharmacies will play a key role, administering between 10 and 20 per cent of vaccinations.
On Monday, March 15th, Ontario will launch its vaccination appointment online reservation system and call centre.
“We are now furiously working to do the final stages of preparation, to test it thoroughly, and then to go live with on the 15th of March,” Hillier said.
With confidence in vaccine supply through to June, Hillier said he expects Ontario communities will able to administer at least 340,000 vaccine doses per day.
“It’s all hands on deck,” he said. “We have asked each public health unit, with all of those resources, to make sure they can rise to a minimum of 10,000 vaccinations per day.”
He added that smaller health unit regions won’t need to reach that level, but larger health unit regions like Toronto will want to do more.
The next phase of vaccine distributions will be based on age, Hillier said.
“We will start with the 80 year olds and over in the third week of March,” he said, which amounts to just over 600,000 people, around 50,000 of whom have already been vaccinated in long-term care facilities.
When the online reservation system and call centre is launched on March 15th, people in the 80-plus age bracket can find out when and where they can get their vaccinations. For those without internet or phone access or who need assistance, Hillier encourages family members, friends, or volunteers to assist them. Hillier said public health units will also be reaching out to those 80 years and over in their communities, flyers will be mailed to households, and there will be public service announcements.
Vaccinations of other age brackets will begin in April, Hillier said.
“Starting the 15th of April, it will be 75 year olds and plus,” he said. “Starting the 1st of May, it will be 70 year olds and plus. Starting the 1st of June, it will be 65 year olds and plus.”
Vaccinations of other age brackets in descending order will follow, although Hillier provided no specific dates for other age brackets.
As for the March 15th launch of the online booking and call centre system, Hillier urged people outside of the 80-plus age bracket not to use the system unless they are helping someone in that age bracket to get an appointment.
“Unless you’re 80 years old, or unless you’re acting to get a reservation for somebody who’s 80 years old or more, please to not go online,” Hillier said. “You will not be permitted to go through the system if you’re not in that age bracket or not acting for somebody in that age bracket. And please do not call the call centre.”
When making a vaccine appointment through the system, people will be asked to enter their postal code and will be shown the closest location where they can make their appointment.
Hillier said these locations could include mass vaccination clinics, a pharmacy, or potentially a “mini-mass vaccination clinics”, where primary care professionals would come together to create a smaller clinic for their patients and others.
“When you make the first appointment, you will make a second appointment to get the second needle in your arm and to get the immunization program complete,” Hillier said.
Hillier added the vaccination roll-out plan depends on the vaccine supply.
“Everything I said about the age brackets and the date times is vaccine dependent,” he said. “If we have another interruption in vaccines, obviously that would slow that process. If we get more vaccines brought to Canada and then to Ontario, that would speed up the process.”
For the second phase of the vaccination roll-out plan, Hillier said the province is in the process of deciding how to proceed with vaccinations of essential workers in workplaces outside of the health care system.