TORONTO – Ontario said its COVID-19 hot spots will have enough vaccines to meet demand when all adults become eligible for shots this week, but critics said the province wasn’t doing enough for areas hit hardest by the pandemic.
The government announced Monday that everyone aged 18 and older would qualify for a shot Tuesday thanks to an early shipment of vaccines. At the same time, Ontario reverted to distributing doses on a per capita basis after sending half its supply to hot spots for two weeks.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the early vaccine shipment meant hot spots would get the shots they require and local health officials would be able to direct doses to where they were most needed.
“We have large quantities of vaccines coming in, so I feel confident that the local medical officers of health will know the areas within their regions that they need to continue to target,” she said, adding that the province will send more doses to areas like Toronto if they run out.
“There will be sufficient quantities to continue to make sure that those areas internally determined to be hot spot areas will still receive extra doses of vaccines.”
Mayors of the largest municipalities in the greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, which have seen high infection rates, called Monday for additional vaccine supply to meet the spike in demand expected from Tuesday’s expansion.
“We know this will create increased demand for vaccine appointments and we will therefore require additional supply of vaccine from the provincial and federal governments if we are to be able to meet the increased demand for appointments,” they said in a statement.
Opposition politicians criticized the government’s move to stop allocating half its supply to hot spots, arguing more focus on hard-hit communities was needed to push down case rates.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwarth said the pivot away from hot spots ignores scientific advice.
“The extra vaccines should be used to even further inoculate those folks in the hotspots, just as the science table recommended to the government,” she said.
An April report from experts advising the government on the pandemic found that prioritizing hot spots for vaccines until June 7 would prevent COVID-19 hospitalizations, cases and deaths.
Liberal House Leader John Fraser and Green party Leader Mike Schreiner also criticized the government, saying continued focus on the hardest-hit areas would benefit everyone by bringing down infections.
The government had initially said it would lower the vaccine eligibility age to 30 this week for residents across Ontario.
It said last week that it’s on track to see 65 per cent of Ontario adults receive a first dose by the end of this month and hopes to see all eligible adults fully vaccinated by the end of September.
The expansion of the immunization effort comes as questions remain about Ontario’s plan for its Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, which it stopped administering as first doses last week amid what it said was an increased risk of a rare blood clotting disorder.
The province’s top doctor reiterated Monday that Ontario was awaiting federal guidance on mixing and matching vaccines before offering second doses to AstraZeneca recipients.
“It would seem to be quite an excellent choice to make and have a second dose with AstraZeneca vaccine, knowing that you had no issues on your first dose … but we also want to answer a couple of questions,” Dr. David Williams said.
“One is what is the capacity for an informed consent of individuals who may want to choose to have an mRNA vaccine as a second dose, and we want to make sure that you have that option in front of you when you’re going to make that choice.”
The province has said some of its AstraZeneca doses may expire while it comes up with a plan for second doses.
Ontario reported 2,170 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and four more deaths linked to the virus. The data was based on nearly 24,500 completed tests.
The Ministry of Health said 1,320 people were hospitalized with the virus but noted that more than 10 per cent of hospitals did not submit data over the weekend.
The seven-day average for new COVID-19 infections has been gradually declining, but officials have said more progress is needed before strict public health rules can be lifted.
Elliott hinted on Monday that limits on outdoor recreation could be lifted before the province’s stay-at-home order expires on June 2, depending on pandemic indicators.
“We are anticipating that there may be other events, summer camps, golf, tennis, other things may be available as of June 2 or perhaps before, depending on the clinical evidence that we receive,” she said. “It’s being reviewed on a very regular basis.”
Elliott said COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care admissions would be factors in the decision.
The province’s ban on outdoor recreational facilities has been heavily criticized by health experts and the government’s science advisers.