TORONTO — Pharmacies in three Ontario regions, including Toronto, will begin administering COVID-19 vaccines next week, although the province provided few details Thursday on how the pilot program would work.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said pharmacies will receive doses of the recently approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. The province has said those shots will go to residents aged 60 to 64 based on federal recommendations.
"A large number will be delivered through pharmacies because it's easier to handle," Elliott said of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
"It will be very helpful as we're trying to roll out the COVID vaccines as quickly as we can to protect as many people as possible."
Elliott said Ontario will soon be releasing a revised immunization timeline that accounts for expected shipments of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot and new guidance on extending the interval between doses to four months -- both of which are expected to speed up the vaccine rollout.
"We know that people are anxious and we're anxious to let them know when they will be able to receive the vaccine," she said.
The Ontario Pharmacists Association said the vaccination pilot will begin with approximately 380 pharmacies in Toronto, Kingston and Windsor-Essex, with the first shots to begin possibly as early as Tuesday.
"It's a move in the right direction," CEO Justin Bates said in an interview. "We're more than happy to partner and be a solution, and we're looking forward to a successful rollout beyond March."
Bates said pharmacies will use their own booking systems to make vaccine appointments since a provincewide web portal isn't set to launch until March 15.
Vaccines will likely go to people between the ages of 60 and 64, Bates said, although that will be evaluated based on supply.
Sites are expected to be able to administer about 46 shots per day, he said.
The program will eventually scale up as supply increases, Bates said, noting that the pharmacists' association has about 4,600 sites across the province.
About 3,200 sites are already experienced with administering flu shots every year, he noted.
"All Ontarians live within three kilometers of a pharmacy, so that's our advantage in terms of our footprint," he said.
Opposition politicians said they were concerned about the government's lack of detail on the vaccine rollout.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government has not done enough to guarantee that older residents most at risk of death or severe illness from COVID-19 will be vaccinated first, as recommended by experts.
"Where's the assurance that folks who are ... between 60 and 64, who are healthy, are not going to get that vaccine ahead of somebody in their 70s," she said.
Liberal health critic John Fraser said the lack of a clear plan is another sign that the government is not ready for the broader rollout.
"Just because a plan evolves, doesn't mean you don't do one or you don't show it to people," he said.
Ontario has administered a total of 784,828 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine so far.
The province's top doctor said Thursday that people should continue to follow public health guidelines even with the good news on increased vaccine supply, pointing to increased cases of COVID-19 variants.
Public Health Ontario confirmed 678 cases of variants, which are more contagious strains of the virus, as of Thursday.
Dr. David Williams said variants are a major factor as he considers whether to recommend lifting a stay-at-home order for Toronto, Peel Region and North Bay, Ont., that's set to expire Monday.
"We want to be cautious at this time," he said, noting he was concerned about rising positivity rates in Toronto and Peel as well.
The government will decide Friday what restrictions to impose on those three regions.
The top doctors in Toronto and Peel have said they want the stay-at-home order lifted and their regions to be placed in the strictest category of the province's colour-coded pandemic framework. That "grey lockdown" category allows non-essential retail to open at 25 per cent, but still bans indoor restaurant dining and personal care services.
Meanwhile, the top doctor for the Sudbury, Ont., area suggested she wanted stronger restrictions for her region amid rising cases that have lead to institutional outbreaks and school closures.
Ontario reported 994 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and 10 more deaths linked to the virus.
The report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press