Mass vaccine clinics open in Toronto as top officials seek restriction adjustments

·4 min read

TORONTO — Mass COVID-19 immunizations kicked off in Toronto Wednesday as top officials in the city and a neighbouring virus hotspot sought to ease some restrictions on outdoor activities.

Three sprawling sites began administering vaccines to Torontonians aged 80 and older. The city plans to have three more running by the first week of April.

Margaret Ture, 89, said she was "thrilled" to get her shot at the downtown Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where people moved quickly inside after arriving for their appointments.

"I can see my family, which I haven't been able to see except outside," Ture said. "It's been a bit cold to be outside."

Robert Maxwell said the process was well-organized.

"I'm very happy," Maxwell said after getting his shot. "It gives you a much greater sense of confidence."

Toronto's immunization effort got underway days after several other communities in Ontario began their own mass vaccination efforts.

The city has said its larger population had meant it had more residents in priority groups to vaccinate first before moving on to those aged 80 and older in the general public.

"This is another big step forward in our team Toronto effort to get people age 80 and above ... vaccinated as soon as possible," Mayor John Tory said at one of the sites Wednesday.

As the vaccine effort ramped up, top doctors in both Toronto and neighbouring Peel region said they were discussing modifications to restrictions currently in place for their communities.

Both Dr. Eileen De Villa and Dr. Lawrence Loh said they wanted to keep their communities in the strictest "grey lockdown" category of Ontario's colour-coded pandemic framework, but with adjustments that would allow for outdoor dining and fitness.

The "grey" zone allows retailers to open with restrictions but bans indoor restaurant dining, gyms and personal care services.

Tory said he understands the need for a provincial framework but there are unique factors in a large, diverse city like Toronto that need to be considered.

"To me, it has always been less about colours at any given point in time, and more about what makes the most sense," he said.

Also on Wednesday, scientists advising the Ontario government published a report that said bringing COVID-19 vaccines directly to buildings with large populations of seniors would offer an accessible, equitable approach to protecting the most vulnerable.

Researchers with Ontario's Science Advisory Table looked at "naturally occurring retirement communities" in Toronto, where more than 30 per cent of residents are aged 65 and older.

They identified 489 such buildings, including 256 in neighbourhoods that have the highest incidence of COVID-19, and said bringing vaccines to those sites would protect people most likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.

"Such an approach is also age-friendly, as it is less complicated and physically taxing for frail or homebound older adults who might otherwise face challenges with booking appointments, travelling to and from mass vaccination clinics, and have difficulty waiting in lines," the report said.

Researchers noted that the strategy would remove potential barriers to online bookings among people who have limited fluency in English or French, lack computer proficiency and have cognitive or sensory impairments.

The researchers had previously made the case for prioritizing COVID-19 vaccination by age and neighbourhood. They said visiting naturally occurring retirement communities -- or NORCs -- with vaccines would be a good application of that strategy.

Researchers said their analysis could applied to other Ontario municipalities, though they noted that the number of such communities is likely higher in Toronto.

The group suggested door-to-door vaccinations and working with community paramedics to carry out the operation, saying entire buildings should be immunized because people of mixed ages interact frequently in many of the buildings.

Researchers also said bringing such services to those communities can "enable older adults to age in their own homes with choice and dignity."

"The approach to COVID-19 vaccination in NORCs may provide a roadmap for a broader re-imagining of service delivery that supports aging in place."

De Villa, Toronto's top doctor, said she had not yet read the report but noted that sending mobile units to buildings with a high percentage of senior residents is an option that's being explored.

Toronto Fire chief Matthew Pegg, who is leading the city's vaccine task force, said some vaccine doses are difficult to transport, making mobile clinics logistically challenging.

"We have all of those on the table," he said. "We'll continue to to mobilize all of those options to the very best of our ability."

Ontario reported 1,508 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 14 more deaths from the virus.

- with files from John Chidley-Hill

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter and John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press