TORONTO — Ontarians aged 80 and older will start receiving COVID-19 vaccines in the third week of March, with the province planning to target seniors in decreasing five-year age increments until 60-year-olds get the shot in July.
Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, the head of the province's vaccine rollout, announced the timeline Wednesday while noting the schedule is dependent on supply. He did not provide details on when residents younger than 60 could expect a vaccine
An online booking system and service desk will become available on March 15 and people in that 80 and older age range, or those booking for them, can access it, Hillier said.
Residents will be notified about the availability of vaccines through media announcements, flyers delivered to households and phone calls from health units, said Hillier, who asked that families and community groups help those 80 and over book their shots.
"Let's make sure we look after them and help them get that appointment," he said.
Ontario aims to vaccinate adults aged 75 and older starting April 15, and those 70 and older starting May 1.
People aged 65 and older will be vaccinated starting June 1, and those 60 and older can get their shots the following month.
Vaccinations in populations considered high-risk, including Indigenous adults, will be ongoing as the province targets seniors in the general population.
Essential workers will likely begin getting their shots in May if supply allows, but the government is still deciding who will be in that group.
Critics said the government was taking too long to launch the online booking portal and get seniors their shots.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said it's "terrifying" that vaccines for those 80 and older won't be available until mid-March given that the province has recently loosened public health restrictions.
"Seniors, particularly vulnerable folks, need to know the information. When is it coming? What are the basics? And why is the province of Ontario so far behind," Horwath said.
"There's no doubt this rollout is being botched by the Ford government."
Liberal health critic John Fraser said the government seems unprepared for the broader distribution of vaccines.
"People want answers. They didn't get any answers this morning, other than it's taking longer than we thought it would, and we're actually not ready," Fraser said.
Hillier said he would have liked to see the booking system up and running sooner but noted that it hadn't been required for the high-priority populations the province has so far focused on vaccinating, such as those in long-term care.
He added that some private-sector companies with large operations have offered to vaccinate their essential workers, their families and communities when the time comes and the province intends to take up those offers.
"We will take advantage of all of it," Hillier said.
Shots will be administered at pharmacies, mass vaccination sites, mobile units and smaller sites depending on the public health unit.
The transition to vaccinate the broader population will ramp up as the province completes its high-priority vaccinations over the next week, Hillier said.
The vaccine rollout will enter a "transition phase" next week, with inoculations resuming among patient-facing health care workers. Shots were paused for that group late last month as the province focused on vaccinating long-term care residents amid a shortage in dose deliveries.
Second doses have also begun in some fly-in First Nations communities.
Vaccine supply will determine whether Ontario meets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pledge that all Canadians who want a COVID-19 will have one by September, Hillier said.
"I'd love to say, yeah, you know, by Labour Day weekend we're gonna have every single person in Ontario who is eligible and who wants a vaccine to have one. I'm a little bit reluctant to do that, because it depends on the arrival of those vaccines," Hillier said.
"I say this, if the vaccines arrive in the numbers required, we'll get them into the arms of the people of Ontario."
A total of 602,848 vaccine doses have been administered in the province so far.
Ontario reported 1,054 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and nine more deaths linked to the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press