TORONTO — Ontario is expanding its COVID-19 immunization campaign next week to include residents aged 75 and older, while making the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine available to anyone over 60 in some regions.
Premier Doug Ford said Friday that the province's immunization rollout is ahead of schedule.
"Thanks to the efforts of the people in the pharmacy and the army of frontline health-care heroes and volunteers, we're getting needles in arms even faster than we could ever imagine," Ford said from a Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto.
"For everyone else, please be patient as we get more supply. Your turn is coming."
The province said more than 50 per cent of Ontario residents aged 80 and older have now received at least one vaccine dose.
Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, who is leading the provincial vaccine task force, noted that there's been a decline in the number of adults aged 80 and older booking appointments. He said the province wants to keep the vaccine supply moving.
"What we're following is a trend on bookings itself," Hillier said.
"As soon as that starts to decrease below the capacity that we have and the vaccines that we are anticipating, then obviously we want to move to the next age group because we don't want to have a single day with seats empty that we otherwise could have filled."
Hillier said bookings will continue for those aged 80 and older as vaccinations are offered to more people starting Monday.
The 75 and older cohort was initially set to become eligible provincewide in April, although some public health units have already moved on to vaccinating that group.
Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said while it's reasonable to start offering vaccines to more people, the number of people over 80 who still haven't received shots is "tremendously concerning."
People aged 80 and older make up 70 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the country, according to Health Canada data. Stall said it's crucial to remove barriers keeping that group from getting vaccinated in Ontario, pointing to mobility challenges, language and technology barriers, and conditions keeping people homebound.
"If we don't do that, not only are we leaving a substantial portion of the population at risk, but we're also not having an equitable vaccine rollout," Stall said.
Meanwhile, certain pharmacies and family doctors in select regions will give the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot to residents aged 60 and older as of Monday.
Those two pilot projects previously only offered the shot to residents aged 60 to 64 but the government said it was removing the upper age limit after new guidelines deemed the shot safe for those 65 and older as well.
The number of participating pharmacies is also doubling to approximately 700 over the next two weeks. The province said that number is expected to rise to approximately 1,500 by the end of April.
Eligible residents can contact a pharmacy directly to make an appointment. Participating pharmacies are currently located in the Toronto, Kingston and Windsor health units but Ford said the project will be expanding "across the province."
The CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association said the next pharmacy locations will be finalized in the coming days. Justin Bates said discussions are also underway about pharmacies distributing some Moderna vaccine doses.
Family doctors are contacting eligible patients directly to make vaccine appointments.
Ford urged residents not to pick and chose between vaccines as more avenues to immunization open up.
The government encouraged people to take the first vaccine available to them – be it the shot from Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna – and stressed that the OxfordAstraZeneca shot was declared safe by Health Canada.
Concerns had been raised over that shot after reports of blood clots among recipients in Europe. On Thursday, the European Medicines Agency said that the vaccine doesn't increase the overall incidence of blood clots.
Ford emphasized Friday that the shot is safe and any of the three being used in Ontario offer key protection from hospitalization and death.
Ontario reported 1,745 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and 10 more deaths from the virus. More than 300 people were hospitalized in intensive care, according to provincial data.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said province is in a race against time to vaccinate people as more contagious variants of COVID-19 spread. Data indicates variants now make up approximately 40 per cent of cases as the province experiences a third wave of infections.
Later Friday, Ontario announced it would loosen restrictions on restaurant capacity under its pandemic response framework.
Starting Saturday, outdoor dining will be permitted for regions in the strictest "grey lockdown" zone, while up to 50 people will be able to dine indoors at restaurants in communities in the second-strictest "red" zone, up from 10.
Stall said changes in public health orders that encourage people to gather as variants are spreading and the health-care system is under strain could threaten the province's chance at a safer summer.
"I think it's a very bad decision," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press