TORONTO — Nearly 150 pharmacies started offering COVID-19 vaccines to all adults in some Ontario virus hot spots this weekend, a shift made to align with provincial efforts to protect the most vulnerable amid a third wave of infections.
The province quietly announced the expanded eligibility on a provincial pharmacy vaccine booking webpage on Friday afternoon.
That government website lists 78 pharmacy locations in Toronto and Peel Region that now offer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to people aged 18 and older. In Durham, Hamilton, Ottawa, Windsor and York Region, a total of 58 pharmacies are offering the Moderna shot to anyone in that age group.
Vaccine-seekers can search by postal code to find local pharmacies administering shots, and are advised to book online or contact pharmacy sites directly.
Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, said his organization had been working with the province to bring the mRNA shots to more pharmacies for some time, with Pfizer shots being offered at 16 initial locations a week earlier. Prior to that, pharmacies had only been cleared to adnister doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to those 40 and older.
The expanded age criteria of 18 and above was approved on Thursday, Bates said, to align with targeted neighbourhood and workplace clinics currently underway in the province. Participating sites received vaccine shipments on Friday.
"Our hope is that we will continue to rapidly accelerate the program and add more of the mRNA vaccines across all pharmacies," Bates said by phone on Saturday.
"This certainly is going to help in terms of increasing access, convenience and options for Ontarians, and that's certainly a good thing."
People won't be asked to provide proof of their residence in a hot spot, Bates said, but pharmacists will need to verify recipients are at least 18 years old at the time of the shot.
Participating pharmacies will receive 150 doses per week, Bates said, with plans to use waitlists and possibly accept walk-ins to ensure supply doesn't go to waste. He said the goal is to have all pharmacies distributing the Moderna and Pfizer mRNA vaccines by mid-June, though the timeline depends on supply.
Despite the lack of an official government announcement about the expanded eligibility, some young adults in the province were quick to sign up as word spread on social media.
Natallia Richards of Ajax, Ont., was scrolling through Twitter early Saturday morning when she came across a series of posts sharing information about the expanded pharmacy age eligibility. She followed a link to the provincial webpage, found a pharmacy location nearby and signed up for a vaccine waitlist.
The 23-year-old said the process was surprisingly simple, adding she's relieved to finally be one step closer to an appointment.
"Obviously I'd like to make a physical appointment but it just feels good that I can finally do this," she said by phone.
Though Richards doesn't live in a designated virus hot spot, she has asthma and interacts with household members who go into work regularly, and she had been eager to snap up an appointment.
"It's kind of scary to just sit there and wait," she said.
Bates said supplies of AstraZeneca doses were nearly depleted as of Saturday, with just three per cent remaining across participating pharmacies.
He said pharmacies are expecting more shots at some point, adding his association is awaiting forthcoming guidance from a national immunization panel on the prospect of mixing first and second doses from different vaccines. If that happens, those pharmacies may start offering Pfizer or Moderna shots as second doses to Oxford-AstraZeneca recipients.
"We're going to remain flexible," he said.
The province also made changes to shorten the timeline between first and second COVID-19 vaccine doses for Indigenous people living in urban settings, as well as people receiving hemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis.
Ontario is currently administering doses four months apart with exceptions for some individuals like transplant recipients, following the shorter timeline recommended by vaccine manufacturers.
A spokeswoman for the health minister confirmed Saturday that the province will shorten the interval between doses for urban-dwelling Indigenous people and dialysis patients based on advice from the ministry's Vaccine Clinical Advisory Group, which makes recommendations on the province's inoculation effort.
Alexandra Hilkene said those populations will be immunized according to the schedules spelled out by vaccine manufacturers, with more guidance to come about the process. Pfizer recommends a 21-day interval between its two shots. Moderna suggests four weeks between doses and Oxford-AstraZeneca advises an interval of between four and twelve weeks.
As Ontario continued to focus half of its total vaccine supply on hot spots, the province's largest city announced Saturday it was on track to have half of its adult residents vaccinated by the end of the weekend.
Toronto Mayor John Tory thanked health-care workers and residents in a Saturday statement ahead of the anticipated milestone.
"This is a non-stop effort. It's about saving lives and getting life back to normal," Tory said.
The changes to the vaccine rollout took effect as the province reported 2,864 new COVID-19 cases and 25 deaths.
Ontario reported 1,832 patients hospitalized with the virus, including 851 patients in intensive care and 588 on ventilators.
The province said it administered 138,125 COVID-19 vaccine doses on Friday, for a total of 6,023,610.
On the web: https://covid-19.ontario.ca/vaccine-locations
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press