The retired general who heads Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force says he believes the province will be able to offer a first dose to any eligible resident who wants one by June 20, as the number of vaccines available increased on Friday.
Rick Hillier made the remarks just an hour after Ontario health officials unveiled a much less aggressive timeline in a technical briefing on plans for the next stage of the province’s mass vaccination campaign.
That plan appeared out of date even as it was being released, with news Friday that extra doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were set to arrive, and that Health Canada had approved another shot, developed by Johnson & Johnson.
“By the first day of summer we want to have – vaccine-supply dependent – we want to have a first needle in the arms of every person in Ontario who’s eligible for the vaccine and who wants to get it,” Mr. Hillier said, citing a “seismic shift” owing to the new vaccines now expected to arrive.
The second-phase plan health officials presented earlier forecasts a shot for everyone older than 60 who wants one by early June. The rest of the population would receive their first shots starting in July. The province’s first phase of vaccinations – for health care workers, residents in long-term care and retirement homes and individuals older than 80 – is still under way.
Premier Doug Ford has taken flak from the Opposition for the slow rollout of the vaccination plans, as compared with other large provinces. B.C. has previously said all eligible adults will be able to get a first dose by the end of July. Alberta has said it would have first needles in all willing arms as early as Canada Day.
Ontario also confirmed on Friday that it was lifting its remaining stay-at-home orders in Toronto and Peel Region next week, but heeding requests from local medical officers of health in those hardest-hit areas to keep them in the grey or “lockdown” level of restrictions. The changes allow non-essential retailers to reopen for in-person shopping, but only with a 25-per-cent capacity limit. Restaurants must remain closed to indoor dining and offer only takeout and delivery.
The government has relaxed its pandemic restrictions in recent weeks despite warnings from its own scientific advisors that highly contagious new variants of the virus could cause infections to shoot upward again, as has occurred in Britain and other European countries.
In releasing its latest vaccination timeline, the province did caution that the numbers and dates could change as supplies increase. Asked to clarify Mr. Hillier’s comments, Ivana Yelich, a spokeswoman for the Premier, said the plans released earlier Friday stand for now until Ontario receives firm commitments about new supplies from Ottawa.
The plans, which now allow for a four-month interval between first and second doses – longer than first recommended – show residents aged 80 and up continuing to receive their first in March. Younger groups then follow in five-year age increments, beginning with those more than 75 receiving shots in April. The province’s web appointment-booking portal is now being tested before being rolled out March 15.
The plans also prioritize those with high-risk health conditions and those living in congregate settings. Groups of essential workers who cannot work from home, including police, firefighters, teachers and food manufacturing workers, are to receive their shots in June. The plan includes extra vaccines and a higher priority for COVID-19 hot spots such as Toronto, Peel Region and Windsor-Essex. Provincial modelling says prioritizing these areas will save more lives.
The province is also rolling out the newly approved AstraZeneca vaccine in pharmacies, following Health Canada recommendations, for seniors aged 60 to 64 (birth years 1956 to 1960). A pilot project involving 500 pharmacies in Toronto, Kingston and Windsor-Essex will launch next week, Mr. Hiller said. Ontario is expecting to receive 190,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by March 10.
To date, Ontario, which has a population of 14.6-million, says it has administered more than 820,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, fully vaccinating 269,000 people.
With a report from Laura Stone
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.