As 2020 burned out, Naheed Dosani’s phone rang with some much needed good news. William Osler Health Network was ready to offer him a COVID-19 vaccine.
The palliative care physician, who works on the frontlines helping those experiencing homelessness, was overcome with emotion. The moment he had imagined was finally upon him: the end of a personal nightmare. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, like millions of healthcare saviours around the world, he would no longer feel his life was constantly on the line.
“I felt really emotional, I kind of choked up, I actually started tearing up,” he told The Pointer, adding he had, “witnessed so much grief, loss and suffering during this time for the communities I serve."
The vaccine doesn’t represent just his safety, it is the bright light we have all desperately waited for.
After months working on the frontlines of a COVID-19 onslaught threatening to overwhelm Ontario’s healthcare system, hope was long overdue.
When Dosani received his first vaccine dose, he found a new atmosphere among colleagues.
“There was a sense of joy and a feeling of positivity that I’ve not felt in healthcare circles since well before the pandemic,” he said.
The vaccines hold promise at a time when the situation is more bleak than ever. On Friday, Ontario reported 4,249 new infections, the highest daily number yet and almost three times higher than the average through the darkest days of November which led to the sweeping lockdown Peel was placed in seven weeks ago.
The extreme restrictions have failed to slow the deadly virus.
Ontario is in a “crisis” Premier Doug Ford said earlier in the day, sounding at a loss, running out of exhortations and pleadings to make residents grasp the enormity of the desperate situation. "This is the most serious situation we've ever been in, ever, ever, since the beginning of this pandemic. I can't stress this enough, please follow the protocols that the health units have put forward."
In Peel, the Province is hoping to ramp up its vaccination efforts to give all long-term care residents and healthcare workers the same hope as Dosani. Peel, along with Toronto, York and Windsor-Essex, has been selected for priority distribution of the vaccine.
"We are getting the vaccine to those who need it most as quickly as possible," retired General Rick Hillier, in charge of the massive vaccine operation in Ontario, said in a media release. "Every vaccination has the potential to save a life. Our focus is on getting the vaccines to the most vulnerable, as well as to the outstanding men and women who serve and care for our long-term care residents."
The current push hopes to see all willing frontline healthcare workers and long-term care residents vaccinated by January 21. The definition of frontline healthcare workers will also now include paramedics, after a successful advocacy campaign spearheaded by the Peel Paramedics Union forced the government to include them in its initial rollout.
Peel Public Health, Trillium Health Partners (THP) and William Osler Health System are at the forefront of the ambitious vaccine rollout program. Peel Public Health is confident it can meet the January 2021 deadline. “We have redeployed staff to ensure we can work quickly and protect our most vulnerable,” spokesperson Ashleigh Hawkins said.
Keeley Rogers, a spokesperson for THP, said the hospital network has already begun vaccinating long-term care residents and paramedics. “Plans are now ramping up to offer vaccines to expanded groups in the health care setting,” she said in an email.
William Osler started vaccinating on December 22, following demands from the provincial government to vaccinate frontline workers and the most vulnerable.
The most detailed stage of the Province’s plan is currently Phase One, which focuses on Ontario’s most vulnerable and the frontline workers who serve them. The aim is to put an end to a series of harrowing outbreaks and deaths in long-term care settings, while also alleviating staff shortages at hospitals and care homes as staff are forced to isolate.
According to Peel Public Health’s latest weekly epidemiological report, 42 institutions in the region are in outbreak. Tullamore Care Community is one example with 18 cases, while Greenway by Revera reported 5 resident cases, 12 staff cases and two resident deaths. This week, Maureen Ambeersley, a Brampton nurse working for Extendicare Mississauga, passed away after being hospitalized with COVID-19.
As of 11:45 a.m. on January 8, Ontario had administered 87,563 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. A total of 4,053 people have completed both rounds of their inoculation and 14,932 doses were administered on January 7.
The NDP, in its role as Official Opposition, has been calling on the government to speed up its vaccine distribution.
“With COVID-19 spiralling out of control in Ontario’s long-term care homes for the second time since spring, the Ford government has responded with a plodding, lethargic vaccine rollout,” Andrea Horwath, NDP leader, said in a media release. “While seniors in long-term care and their families are racked with fear and anguish, Mr. Ford simply does not want to spend the money to get vaccines into arms as soon as possible.”
Horwath’s comments hit on a tension playing out on social media between the government and its critics. Many, including the NDP, fear an inefficient rollout plan means vital doses are sitting around, while Ford maintains the vaccine is entering through arms almost as quickly as it touches down in the province.
“I just want to clarify something, there’s no vaccines sitting in any freezers,” Premier Ford said at a Wednesday press conference. “We’re running out of vaccines.”
A spokesperson for the NDP told The Pointer its members want to see all long-term care residents vaccinated by January 21, not just those in so-called hot zones.
Once long-term care residents and frontline healthcare workers are protected, Ontario will hope to broaden its scope. Precise details are not clear, but Phase Two of its rollout will slightly increase availability, before Phase Three will offer vaccinations to all those who want them. Everyone in Ontario will be given an opportunity to become immunized and protect vulnerable residents from the spread of the virus.
“I think sometimes in these conversations we get really focused on ‘me’,” Dosani said. “It’s not about me getting the vaccine, it’s about me getting the vaccine so I am able to better serve the communities… soon it will be all of us coming together as a collective to protect our communities.”
When that time comes, ease of access will be important to maximize uptake and immunity within the community. According to slides presented by the Ministry of Health, 50 kilometres of travel is “acceptable commuting distance” to get a vaccine.
In an attempt to play its part, Peel’s cities have started investigating spaces for vaccine rollout.
“Over the next weeks and months, the priority at the City of Mississauga will be ensuring we have systems in place to help the broader rollout so residents can get the vaccine quickly and as efficiently as possible,” Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said Wednesday. “Staff at the City have been directed to identify potential sites that can be used to administer the vaccine. I am working closely with my policy team to determine what other resources we have available to help support the Province, Peel Public Health and, of course, our hospitals.”
Gary Kent, acting city manager, told The Pointer the Region had asked the City to consider possible vaccine locations. “The Region of Peel has requested that City of Mississauga staff help identify locations that could be used for vaccination clinics, and we will be a strong part of the partnership working to bring vaccinations to residents.”
The City of Brampton is undergoing a similar process to identify spaces for William Osler and the Province to ramp up vaccinations. “Now in this important phase of COVID-19 response, the City will continue to collaborate with its partners to support the vaccination roll-out,” a spokesperson said.
As Peel, and Ontario as a whole, moves slowly toward the light at the end of the tunnel, cases continue to rise at alarming rates. Praising the vaccine, leaders are at pains to point out the pandemic is the worst it has ever been and no resident should let their guard down.
Over the next several months, more and more residents will be offered a chance to share the joy, and relief, Dosani experienced when the vaccine entered his blood system through a needle in his left arm.
“I am pretty scared of needles myself, took a deep breath and got the shot,” he said. “It was New Year’s Eve, so it was pretty symbolic of 2020.”
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Isaac Callan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer