TORONTO — Some Ontario seniors braved frigid temperatures Monday to get a COVID-19 vaccine as several regions in the province moved ahead with their plans to vaccinate the general public.
With the broad launch of a provincial booking portal still two weeks away, some local public health units used their own systems to allow residents aged 80 and older to schedule appointments.
In York Region, where bookings opened Monday morning for shots that could be administered as early as the afternoon, dozens of seniors and their caregivers lined up outside a sports centre to get the vaccine.
Some huddled together for warmth - a winter weather advisory was in effect for the region - as the line to enter the centre in Richmond Hill moved slowly.
Hassan Abbas Kara was saving a place in line while his grandmother waited in a car.
“I don't want her to wait in the cold, so it’s a little thing I can do right now to help her," he said.
Atta Hussain, 82, said the process was "beautiful" and well organized, and expressed relief after receiving his shot.
"We thank everybody who is participating," he said.
York Region said its vaccination clinics were fully booked just two hours after they started taking appointments. A spokesman said approximately 20,000 appointments were made Monday across five locations in the region.
Clinics were also offering shots to those 80 and older in Windsor-Essex County, and to those 85 and older at a hospital in Hamilton, where officials warned of long wait times amid high call volumes to its COVID-19 hotline.
Hamilton's top doctor apologized for backlog on the phone line and asked people who don't live in the city to not call about appointments.
The provincial government has said it aims to begin vaccinating Ontarians aged 80 and older starting the week of March 15, the same day it plans to launch its vaccine booking system, which will offer a service desk and online portal.
It has said the vaccine rollout will look different in each of its 34 public health units.
When asked about the lack of provincewide cohesion, Health Minister Christine Elliott said that public health units know their regions best and that's why they have been given responsibility to set the pace locally.
"Some of them are already vaccinating the over-80-year-old people that are living within their regions," Elliott said Monday. "I think that's something that we should be celebrating not denigrating."
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said he's happy some public health units are offering shots already, but argued it could cause issues later when health units that have already started making appointments on their own systems have to switch over to the provincial one.
The province also said Monday that it has asked the federal government for guidance on possibly extending the intervals between the first and second COVID-19 vaccine doses to four months.
It pointed to British Columbia's decision to do so and said there's growing evidence suggesting intervals between the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses can be safely extended.
Monday also saw two Ontario regions - Thunder Bay and Simcoe Muskoka - return to lockdowns as a result of rising COVID-19 cases.
Restrictions on businesses and gatherings were loosened in seven other health units: Niagara Region, Chatham-Kent; Middlesex-London; Southwestern; Haldimand-Norfolk; Huron Perth; and Grey Bruce.
Municipal officials in Simcoe Muskoka raised concerns about pressure on small businesses and the effects of yet another lockdown on the public during a public meeting with the health unit on Monday.
The region's top doctor said he's heard concerns about the strict measures from people in areas with fewer cases. Dr. Charles Gardner said he'll be in touch with the province's chief medical officer about whether a full lockdown is required for the region.
In Thunder Bay, which entered a lockdown after reporting more COVID-19 cases in February than all of 2020, a local hospital reported it was expanding its COVID-19 and intensive care units to meet the needs of the community.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the Public Health Agency of Canada was reviewing a funding application for an isolation site in Thunder Bay after the city said it could no longer afford to keep it running.
Ontario reported 1,023 new cases of COVID-19 and six more deaths from the virus on Monday.
- With files from Cole Burston
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press