TORONTO — Ontario's COVID-19 immunization effort moved ahead Friday with family doctors preparing to vaccinate patients over the weekend, while a spike in cases pushed another region into lockdown.
The president of the Ontario Medical Association said physicians in six regions are asking for patience as they begin administering doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged 60 to 64 on Saturday.
Dr. Samantha Hill said there is concern doctors' offices will be overwhelmed with calls.
"Patients don't need to contact their physicians at this point," she said. "Doing so will just delay people's access to care. Physicians who have access to the vaccine will be calling their patients."
The province announced this week that some family doctors in Toronto, Peel Region, Hamilton, Guelph, Peterborough, and Simcoe-Muskoka will be administering the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot.
The doctors are getting a limited number of doses -- some 29,500 shots -- but that could increase as more vaccine shipments arrive.
Hill noted that not all family doctors in the six regions are part of the vaccine project.
But primary physicians expect to eventually be a larger part of the vaccine rollout given that they administer roughly 70 per cent of Ontario's flu shots each year, Hill said.
"(Doctors) have the structure, they have the resources, they have the skills," she said. "What matters is getting as many vaccines as possible into arms as fast as possible."
Meanwhile, the government said Friday that it was moving the Sarnia-Lambton region into lockdown on Monday after a recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
Lambton Public Health said the move to lockdown is a "declaration of emergency" after weekly case numbers rose "dramatically" among residents under age 50 and several outbreaks were reported.
"The local situation is concerning as (COVID-19) has the potential to spread rapidly in our community,” Dr. Sudit Ranade, the region's top doctor, said in a statement.
The province also said it will move the Northwestern Health unit into the second-strictest "red" category of Ontario's colour-coded pandemic framework.
The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit will move from the least restrictive "green" category into the "yellow" category.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the latest COVID-19 projections suggest Ontario is at a critical stage of the pandemic, with vaccinations increasing but more contagious virus variants spreading.
"We urge everyone to continue following all public health measures and advice to help prevent further transmission and protect our health system capacity," she said in a statement.
Earlier Friday, a pilot project offering Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to residents aged 60 to 64 launched fully at pharmacies in three public health units - Toronto, Windsor and Kingston.
Some pharmacies had already started administering the vaccines earlier in the week and the Ontario Pharmacists’ Association said interest has been overwhelming.
Individual pharmacies are using their own booking systems and the association said people should check online before calling.
Daryl Bedard, 61, was the first to get his shot at the Junction Chemist in west Toronto on Friday morning.
Bedard said he called to make an appointment earlier this week after seeing a post on the pharmacy's social media accounts about the availability of vaccines.
"It's like having a flu shot...there's nothing to it," he said.
Bedard's wife accompanied him but since she is 15 years his junior, she won't be able to get her own shot until later, he said.
The couple is eager to be able to travel so they can see their children, he said.
"As everybody else, we're sitting here waiting for the world to open up," he said.
Lucilia Pato, who went to get vaccinated at the pharmacy with her husband Friday, said she was relieved to finally get it done.
"I want to have whatever they're going to call normal life again so...whenever they called me I was ready," she said. "Now I can see the grandkids, my dad who's in a home."
Barbara Violo, a pharmacist and the owner of Junction Chemist, said they received 500 doses and have booked 500 appointments over the next week, with people reserving their spots by phone, email and in person.
She said the first day was "a little bit hectic" but manageable, noting pharmacists have lots of experience handling large vaccination campaigns.
Violo said everyone who has come in for a shot so far has been "super excited."
"They're all happy. They've been waiting a long time, they all feel honoured to be able to get it," she said.
Ontario reported 1,371 new cases of COVID-19 and 18 more deaths linked to the virus on Friday.
- with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press