TORONTO — Ontario's COVID-19 vaccination effort took another step forward on Saturday as many family physicians in a handful of public health units began administering shots to specific members of the general public.
The ramped-up immunization drive kicked in days after the province gave the green light to start targeting residents of six public health units between the ages of 60 and 64. Family doctors were cleared to begin administering shots of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to eligible residents in Toronto, Peel Region, Hamilton, Guelph, Peterborough, and Simcoe-Muskoka.
As he prepared to give 40 patients their shots, at least one doctor said the acceleration of the mass inoculation effort left him "giddy" with excitement.
"This is what we do as family doctors," said Dr. Sohal Goyal, the lead physician of a family health group in Mississauga, Ont.
"We're excited to finally be able to contribute. And hopefully, this will mean that all family doctors will be given the opportunity across the province."
The doctors are currently set to receive a limited supply of roughly 29,500 vaccine doses, but officials have said that figure could increase as more vaccine shipments arrive in Canada.
The Ontario Medical Association is asking residents to refrain from flooding doctors' offices with phone calls, saying that physicians will contact patients who are eligible to receive the vaccine.
Still, Goyal said, his practice isn't turning away unsolicited callers, but putting them on a wait list instead.
"We're trying to look at inventory versus accommodating everyone," said Goyal, board chair of the Mississauga Halton Primary Care Network. "I just want to protect the community."
Goyal said he hasn't encountered much hesitancy after reassuring patients that the AstraZeneca vaccine is both safe and effective, despite reports that some people in the European Union experienced blood clots after getting the shot.
"The question is: Do you want to get it now, or do you want to wait?" said Goyal, noting that immunization experts are urging Canadians to accept any vaccine they can get as soon as possible to reduce the burden COVID-19 places on the health-care system.
"If you talk to patients that way, most of them understand it, and they're ready to go."
Family doctors are well equipped to assist with the COVID-19 immunization campaign, delivering a large share of flu shots every season, Goyal said.
Some primary care providers may face challenges integrating their COVID-19 vaccination duties into their already busy practices, he said.
Public health protocols have made delivering care more complicated, and now staff will have to learn to navigate a new vaccine documentation system, he noted.
Over the past week, Goyal said he'd spent hours every night preparing to deliver his first batch of shots. For him, however, the extra effort was more than worthwhile.
"Each of these needles could potentially save a life," said Goyal, who lost his father to COVID-19 complications in January.
"There's things we do on a daily basis that are challenging. And this is one where you're contributing directly to the health-care system and to these individual patients. And there's nothing like it."
Another pilot project offering the AstraZeneca vaccine to residents in the same age bracket in pharmacies in three public health units — Toronto, Windsor and Kingston — launched on Friday.
Meanwhile, the province continued to administer the other approved vaccines to older residents and those in certain targeted groups.
Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, for instance, tweeted that the oldest known Canadian received an initial dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot on Saturday.
The hospital quoted Phyllis Ridgeway, who turned 114 on March 10, as saying, "This is the best birthday I've ever had."
Ontario reported 1,468 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, as well as 11 more deaths linked to the virus.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the latest count includes 381 new infections in Toronto, 226 in Peel and 168 in York Region.
The province reports that 676 people are being treated for COVID-19 in hospital, including 282 patients in intensive care.
Elliott said 1,116,496 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Ontario as of Friday evening.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2021.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press