TORONTO — Ontarians will be able to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 sooner than expected as the province shortens the interval between doses.
Critics warned, however, that the booking process risked becoming chaotic since the government was placing the onus on residents to move up appointments for second shots.
The move announced Friday is part of Ontario's plan to fully immunize all willing adults by the end of August thanks to a steady vaccine supply and the fact that 65 per cent of adults have had a first shot.
Shortened dose intervals will be offered first to those aged 80 and older next week, followed by those 70 and older in mid June. Residents will then become eligible for second doses based on when they received their first shot.
Premier Doug Ford said getting more people fully vaccinated is essential to beating COVID-19.
"The faster we deliver vaccines, the faster we can put this pandemic behind us for good," he said. "Based on what we know about upcoming shipments, everyone in Ontario who wants a vaccine could be fully vaccinated by the end of August."
The schedule could move faster if supply increases, Ford said.
While the shortened intervals were welcomed, critics noted that there's no provincial plan to contact recipients directly to move up second doses. Residents will keep their original second-dose appointments – four months from the first – if they don't book an earlier shot.
Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, expressed concern about the lack of a government effort to help those 70 and older get second doses sooner.
Given the high COVID-19 risks to seniors, and their challenges with booking vaccinations during the first round, Stall said automatically rebooking appointments "would have been a much more sensible and frankly, humanitarian approach."
"We don't now want to lose people who might otherwise get their second shots ... at an earlier time period because of the fact that we cannot design systems that are simple for them to use," he said.
Opposition politicians echoed those comments, saying the strategy for bookings could replicate the confusion that has defined rollout so far.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the approach risks repeating the “Hunger Games” outcome of the first round, which has seen people scrambling to snap up appointments.
"I’m thrilled that we're cutting the gap between doses," she said. "But let’s make sure there’s a plan for this round to be much better than the first."
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the province is "heading into the same mess as with the first doses" by not helping people book faster second shots.
"This misdirected approach will only lead to more confusion and anxiety," he said.
Vaccinations have been offered at locations that include mass sites, hospitals, pharmacies, doctors' offices and pop-up clinics. The booking process has varied between regions and has involved making appointments online, over the phone and, in some cases, waiting in line at walk-in sites.
The health minister expressed confidence that seniors would be able to move up their second appointments if desired.
"We didn't have a problem with people 80 plus getting their first doses organized, and we're sure that their second doses won't be a problem either," Christine Elliott said.
The shortened interval could be as small as 28 days for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in the coming months, depending on supply.
Those who got a first shot of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be offered a second dose after 12 weeks, though it could be a different vaccine depending on awaited federal guidance. A recent U.K. study found giving second doses of AstraZeneca vaccine at 12 weeks or later was more effective against COVID-19 than taking shots six weeks apart.
Those between the ages of 12 and 25 will become eligible for second doses in early August.
The province plans to give first doses to the majority of youth aged 12 to 17 next month and administer second doses in August so that as many as possible will be fully vaccinated by the start of the school year.
Vaccination teams also plan to start offering shots to youth in 31 fly-in First Nations communities and Moosonee in northern Ontario starting Monday.
The acceleration of the vaccine effort comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been dropping in Ontario in recent weeks. The province remains under a stay-at-home order imposed to battle a devastating third wave and schools continue to teach students online.
The province's three-step reopening plan, set to begin the week of June 14, is dependent on vaccination rates and other health indicators.
Ford indicated on Friday that he will stick to that plan.
"It kills me to keep these businesses closed, but I have to," he said. "We're going to open up cautiously and carefully."
Ontario reported 1,273 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 14 more deaths. The data is based on nearly 40,900 completed tests.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press