Ontario to study vaccine hesitancy, health minister says as rollout continues

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TORONTO, Ohio — Ontario is looking at how it can address vaccine hesitancy amongst some of its oldest citizens, the province's health minister said Monday as the government urged people 75 and older to get their shots.

Christine Elliott made the comments hours before the National Advisory Committee on Immunizations recommended against using the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for anyone under the age of 55.

Ontario's top doctor said that advice meant the province — which has so far only used the shot for those aged 60 and older — was "pausing" plans to administer it to younger groups.

Earlier Monday, Elliott acknowledged that concerns over the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot, and a preference among some to get a vaccine from their family doctor, are just a few of the reasons the uptake amongst the older age group hasn't been as fast as the government would have liked.

"We are studying it, yes, there is some degree of vaccine hesitancy that we are trying to overcome, particularly with respect to AstraZeneca," said Elliott, who recieved her first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at a pharmacy in Toronto earlier in the day.

"That was one reason why I wanted to do my own publicly to show people that it's safe, and it works."

Elliott's office said 40 per of adults aged 75 to 79 have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since appointments opened for that age group across the province last week.

The government also said 77 per cent of residents 80 and older have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Elliott stressed that the vaccines are safe and help reduce hospitalization and illness from COVID-19.

"We know that for some people, particularly seniors that may have other conditions, that they really want to receive the vaccine from their primary care provider," she said. "That's why we're making sure that we get a lot of vaccines into primary care as well."

A total of 2,031,735 vaccine doses have been administered in the province so far.

Meanwhile, the province opened vaccine appointments to residents aged 70 and older in several health units on Monday, including in York Region, where the parking lot at Canada’s Wonderland was transformed into a drive-thru vaccination clinic.

The site has capacity for more than 1,200 daily appointments but 100 were scheduled for opening day. Regional transit buses store vaccines and other supplies on site where health-care workers immunize people waiting in their cars.

Vehicles started to trickle in shortly before 11 a.m. Renzo Morello, 73, of Woodbridge, Ont., arrived early and had to drive around before heading in to the site.

"I’m pretty happy that I got a booking today," he said on his way in, adding that he appreciated the drive-thru option. "You don’t have to stand in the cold."

The drive-thru option was important for Marilyn Park, 76, of Richmond Hill, Ont.

Parke said she hasn’t left home other than going for drives since the pandemic started and she’s unable to stand in long lines at larger vaccination sites due to a health condition.

At the Wonderland site she said she was able to wait in the car and have the dose brought to her, enjoying a coffee during the 15-minute observation period after getting her dose.

"It was smooth as anything," Parke said after getting her shot.

Ontario also said Monday that it was tightening restrictions for the Middlesex-London region following an increase in COVID-19 cases.

The province says it was activating its "emergency brake" measure to move the area into the second-strictest "red" category of the province's pandemic framework. The move takes effect on Tuesday.

Regions are placed in the red category if they've had repeated outbreaks in multiple sectors and settings that could overwhelm hospital and intensive care capacity.

The province said the Middlesex-London health unit's case rate increased by 86.9 per cent last week, to 64.4 cases per 100,000 people.

Ontario reported 2,094 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 10 more deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press