TORONTO — Ontario is pausing COVID-19 vaccinations of long-term care staff and essential caregivers so that it can focus on administering the shots to all nursing home residents amid a shortage of doses.
The province announced the change of focus for its vaccination plan on Monday as it deals with delays in deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with no shots expected to arrive this week.
Premier Doug Ford said the shift will mean some of the most vulnerable seniors will receive the first dose of the vaccine by Feb. 5, early than initially planned.
"If the past week has taught us anything, it's that we can't take vaccine shipments for granted," he said. "I want to be clear, we're using every single vaccine we can to protect our most vulnerable. But delivery delays are now forcing us to be careful and cautious."
The province will now prioritize vaccinating long-term care, high-risk retirement, and First Nations elder care residents across Ontario.
The government had initially promised to complete the vaccination of all long-term care home residents, staff and caregivers by Feb. 15.
Health-care workers who have already received their first dose will still get a second, but the province said that shot may be delayed by up to 42 days depending on supply.
The government also said it will reallocate vaccines to ensure that 14 public health units that have not yet received the shot can begin to immunize residents in long-term care this week.
Ford said Ontario still hopes to be able to offer immunizations more widely to people across the province this summer.
"As soon as we can start receiving regular shipments of vaccines from the federal government, it will be full steam ahead," he said.
The province said Monday it has administered the first dose of the vaccine in 479 long-term care homes and 540 retirement homes.
A total of 286,110 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the province so far.
Ontario said it expects 26,325 Pfizer-BioNTech doses next week, which are far fewer than the amount originally expected.
The federal government has not provided Ontario with an update on expected vaccine deliveries on Feb. 8 or Feb. 15, the province said.
Ontario reported 1,958 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 43 more deaths linked to the virus.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on the government to give the first vaccine shot to all long-term care residents by Friday.
"We have to do far more than just wait for the vaccine in long-term care homes,” Horwath said in a statement.
Liberal health critic John Fraser said the government's plan will save lives, but chided it for moving slowly on the vaccine rollout.
"Let’s be clear though, Ontario didn’t need to be in this position," he said in a statement. "Ontario had enough supply to vaccinate all 72,000 long-term care residents by the end of December 2020. Yet our limited vaccine supply has not been getting to those who need it most."
The CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario said the government should have focused on long-term care residents when it first started its vaccine rollout. Instead, some staff that are not dealing with frontline patients have received the vaccine, Doris Grinspun said.
Any vaccines currently in the province should be administered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to residents in long-term care in an effort to save lives, she added.
"We could be done by mid-way through next week if we did that," she said. "There is enough personnel to do it."
Meanwhile, the mayors and chairpersons of municipalities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area asked the province and federal government to take urgent action Monday to address sick pay benefits.
The group said that even with the lockdown measures currently in place, large outbreaks are happening in essential workplaces.
They said despite the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit from the federal government and employment protection provisions put in place by the province, people continue to come to work with COVID-19.
"The best advice from our public health professionals right now is to address this issue with improved sick pay benefits for those with COVID-19," they said in a statement.
Opposition critics, labour groups, and health-care workers have called on the province to provide sick-day benefits to help people self-isolate if they are ill.
Ford said last week that the federal sick pay benefit is under Ottawa's jurisdiction and the province does not need to duplicate the program.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press