While some First Nations communities in Northern Ontario can expect to receive COVID-19 vaccines in the first three months of the New Year, it will likely be April, May or June before most citizens of Northeastern Ontario can expect to see vaccination clinics in their communities.
That's about as specific as retired general Rick Hillier would get on Tuesday during a briefing at Queen's Park to outline Ontario's vaccine distribution plans in the coming weeks and months.
Hillier, who chairs the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force, has been under fire in recent days because of the province's decision to slow down the vaccine program during the Christmas period.
Hillier explained he was told by some long-term care (LTC) administrators that LTC staff would be cut back during the holiday period. Hillier said in many cases workers had been “running flat out for 10 months” and needed a break.He said he was told many of those workers would not be available for a vaccine.
In the meantime, Hillier said the Ontario plan was on target.
"You know we realized early on that our mission was a marathon, not just a sprint and we had to be ready for longer term," Hillier told reporters.
He said that Ontario's Phase One started with the first arrival of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine earlier in December, with a directive from the province to protect the most vulnerable, those being patients in long-term care homes as well as front line health-care workers. This also includes home staff and essential visitors to those homes.
Hillier added that efforts would be underway very soon to vaccinate more LTC residents with the newer Moderna vaccine, which is easier to transport as it does not require extreme cold refrigeration the way the Pfizer vaccine does.
"As of this moment, we do not have the Moderna vaccine in our hands in Ontario, but we expect it in the next 24 hours," said Hillier.
He said medical teams will be taking delivery at four areas in Southern Ontario, primarily lockdown zones, which Hillier described as hot zones "where COVID-19 is ravaging the population."
While this is underway, Hillier said it doesn't mean other parts of Ontario's population are being ignored.
"I would speak to the First Nations here and just say be assured that those people in the long-term care homes or retirement homes that are First Nations are going to be looked after as part of this priority also," said Hillier.
He added that this includes the workers in those First Nations nursing homes.
Hillier said this means that teams will be going into remote Indigenous communities along the James Bay coast to carry out vaccination programs.
"We are preparing now to do that and that's what we want to do very early in January," said Hillier.
"We want to do that in Phase One in the North, if you will. I think it is 31 communities that you can fly into only. And then look at how we roll across the northern part of Ontario with a continuation of that program and ensure that we get to as many people as possible in those communities that have survived largely because they have isolated themselves from the outside world."
Hillier said the dosages will be increased weekly throughout January, February and March, to provide protection to LTC residents, health-care workers and staff. He said the dosages in March could reach as much as 1.1 million.
"And so by the end of Phase One, we hope to have vaccinated over a million health-care workers and people in the most vulnerable circumstances here in Ontario. We can't do it any faster. We don't have the vaccines coming to us any faster," said Hillier. “if we did, we would use them more quickly.”
He said March would be the end of Phase One, and moving into Phase Two during April, May and June he is expecting five million doses a month to arrive.
He said the goal is to vaccinate up to 150,000 people a day. He said in many cases this would involve hospitals, local public health clinics, mobile vaccination sites and pharmacies.
He said priorities have not been set for Phase Two vaccines, but it will likely include essential workers, farm employees, police officers, teachers along with people in vulnerable age groups such as elderly citizens who do not live in nursing homes.
"We want to roll through April, May and June and use every single one of those 15 million vaccinations," he added.
Both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines are double-dose medications, meaning the first part of the vaccine is administered and then the patient must return a few weeks later for the secondary dosage. Hillier said he has talked with medical experts who have told him the Moderna vaccine could be improved to make it a one-dose vaccine, but so far that has not happened.
Hillier said most Ontario residents should be vaccinated by the end of July. Phase Three would follow after that as a follow-up booster shot for such things as the flu vaccine or a Shingles vaccine.
Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com