Ontario opens vaccines to more people, expands pharmacy pilot amid supply uncertainty

·5 min read

TORONTO — Ontario pledged to further expand its COVID-19 vaccine rollout Monday, but questions remained about the dwindling supply of doses and the government's ability to deliver on its promised timelines.

Premier Doug Ford said Ontario was expecting to receive about 300,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, but it will only receive 90,000. And it has yet to find out when the next shipment of Oxford-AstraZeneca will arrive.

"It makes things very, very challenging," said Ford, who has frequently complained about the lack of adequate vaccine supplies from the federal government.

On Monday, people aged 75 years and older began booking their vaccine appointments through a provincial online portal and a call centre, while pharmacies in three public health units started administering the AstraZeneca shots to those aged 60 and older.

Ford said the pharmacy pilot project, running at 327 locations in Toronto, Kingston and Windsor-Essex, would be expanded in the coming weeks to include Peel and York regions if the province received more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Initially, only people aged 60 to 64 could book the pharmacy shots based on federal guidance that has since been updated.

But as more people became eligible for the pharmacy doses on Monday, appointments became more scarce.

Hamilton resident Heidi Flemming tried in vain on Monday to book vaccination appointments for her Toronto-based parents, aged 70 and 73. There were no spots available at Shoppers and Costco, she said, and other pharmacies didn’t answer their phones.

She eventually got her parents waitlisted for shots, but an emailed confirmation from Pharmasave didn’t indicate how long the wait might be and noted that "vaccines are in limited supply."

“They have been trapped in their one-bedroom apartment since August," Flemming said in a social media message. "It is really unreasonable that they can’t get access quickly and easily."

Meanwhile, people aged 75 and older who had booked vaccine appointments trickled in at a sports complex in Mississauga, Ont.

Pobeda Cristiano, who turns 79 next week, scored an appointment at the site after having difficulty using the booking portal and phone line.

“I started getting a headache,” she said about booking online.

She drove to the location and staff helped her get in line.

Others had an easier time with the booking portal. Bob Barbil, 78, booked his appointment online in the morning and had received the shot by noon.

“(It was) excellent. No waiting and lots of people who volunteer,” he said.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said about 90,000 appointments had been booked in the first few hours after it opened to the wider demographic group Monday morning.

Despite the issues, Jones said she was "confident" that expected supply increases over the next several weeks would speed up the process.

Health Minister Christine Elliott pledged on Monday to get an AstraZeneca shot on camera, joining a growing roster of politicians doing so to restore public confidence in the vaccine.

"If I can convince one other person to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine and that helps protect them and their health and safety and that of their families, I'm more than happy to do that," Elliott said.

Concerns about that vaccine first arose when initial trials did not include many seniors, and more recently after several European nations suspended use of the vaccine following repots of some cases of blood clots in patients. The European Medicines Agency has since concluded the vaccine did not raise the overall risk of clots, and Health Canada has declared it safe.

Ontario is eager to speed up its vaccination campaign as it enters a third wave of infections.

Health officials said Monday that current data indicates variants represent more than 46 per cent of new cases. Dr. David Williams, the province's chief medical officer, said people infected with virus variants seem to be presenting more at hospital ICUs and those cases are showing higher levels of mortality, a pattern that has been seen elsewhere in the world.

Those trends were reported days after the province loosened public health restrictions on restaurants by allowing up to 50 people to dine indoors in the "red" zone of its pandemic framework -- the strictest level short of a lockdown.

Williams said that decision, which was met with criticism and alarm from the physicians, was made after restaurants raised concerns about the smaller limit. He said it's businesses' responsibility follow the guidelines.

"I was OK to allow this variation to come in if there was checks and balances," he said. "It's, in a way, an agreement, a contract with the public to say, 'You really want to have this, you can get it, but you've got to follow all the rules very carefully.'"

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the decision was "surprising" given that there are inadequate protections for workers to take time off if they become sick.

"I think it's a recipe for the possibility of a massive third lockdown and that's the last thing these small businesses need," she said.

On Monday, the province also announced plans to spend $1.2 billion to assist public hospitals in recovering from the financial pressures of COVID-19.

More than half of the funds will cover “historic working funds deficits” and $572 million will address losses from revenue sources affected by the pandemic, such as parking and retail services.

Ontario reported 1,699 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and three more deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2021.

- With files from Denise Paglinawan in Mississauga

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press