Ontario is casting a wider net with , arming a small number of family doctors with AstraZeneca shots for adults in their early 60s in addition to 327 in the Toronto, Windsor and Kingston areas.
But the retired general in charge of Ontario’s vaccination task force warned demand will exceed supply for now with about 1 million people in the 60-64 age category across the province and 194,500 doses available.
“Clearly we don’t have nearly enough to do all of them or even close to it yet,” Rick Hillier said Wednesday.
He urged residents of the three areas not to book appointments or go on wait lists at multiple pharmacies, fearing that will “clog up the system.”
Critics warned the lack of a one-stop booking system for shots across the province creates a “free-for-all” that could lead to frustration in trying to get through to pharmacies, no-shows for appointments and wasted doses.
“This is exactly why we needed the online booking portal ready by March 1,” Green Leader Mike Schreiner said of the system slated to open Monday with a phone hotline. Both services are opening only to those 80 and older before moving to younger age groups.
There was confusion over who, exactly, qualifies for shots in what a government news release called the “60-64” age category “as defined by year of birth between 1957-1961.” This prompted the government to release a statement to clarify eligibility, adding flexibility.
“The Ministry of Health is recommending that a vaccine be administered to those who are 60-64 or are turning 60 in 2021. If the individual has just turned 65 and their birth year falls within the defined range, they are also eligible should they wish to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
One Toronto woman born in 1956 and still age 64 contacted the Star to say she was refused an appointment by a pharmacy before the ministry released that guidance late Wednesday afternoon.
“This is so wrong,” she wrote.
While the number of pharmacies is lower than the 380 previously expected, Premier Doug Ford said “some began administering vaccinations this morning” and noted the number of drug stores will be increased across the province as more AstraZeneca doses arrive.
Some pharmacies began taking bookings or waiting lists online and by phone in the day or two before the list was released Wednesday, leading to concerns that people who need shots the most could be left “at the back of the line,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“The government needs to take responsibility for all the confusion and chaos that’s surrounding this plan and the lack of accountability for what’s going to happen here.”
Bookings at pharmacies appeared to be on a first-come, first-served basis but Ford said some family doctors sharing 29,500 doses will have more control over which patients aged 60-64 get shots beginning Saturday.
The Ministry of Health said primary care physicians at 40 locations in Toronto, Hamilton, Guelph, Peterborough, Simcoe-Muskoka and Peel will be reaching out to select patients in the next few days. The sites have not yet been finalized.
Those family doctors know “who needs it sooner than other patients,” Ford said when asked if people with underlying medical conditions putting them at greater risk from COVID-19 would be prioritized.
Schreiner said the lack of a province-wide booking system to date means the government has missed a chance to prioritize so-called “hot spot” neighbourhoods or populations where shots could have a bigger impact in keeping cases under control.
Although officials including Health Minister Christine Elliott said the online portal has been delayed to make sure Ontario gets it right after similar systems in other jurisdictions like Alberta have been overwhelmed, Ford said not to be surprised if the same thing happens here Monday.
“If the portal crashes, don’t panic, we’ll get it up,” he added, stressing that people should not go to it online or call the phone line unless they are 80 or older or booking an appointment for someone who is.
Ontario has chosen to use AstraZeneca vaccines in the early 60s age group because it has not been recommended in people 65 and older by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization. However, Quebec said Monday it would use the vaccine on residents over 65.
Pharmacies involved include Shoppers Drug Mart, Costco, Loblaws, Rexall, Guardian, Pharmasave, Walmart and a number of independents.
It’s expected most can do about 40 vaccinations a day, said Hillier, who added Ontario is opening another 120 mass vaccination clinics this month that will help provide a total of 150,000 shots daily if supplies allow.
The province is getting almost 2 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines this month, in addition to what has arrived from AstraZeneca.
To date, Ontario has administered about 1 million vaccinations, including 280,000 who have received two doses and are considered fully immunized. The injections have been mostly for nursing- and retirement-home residents, front-line health-care workers and essential caregivers, along with some people over 80 living on their own.
Just over 35,000 shots were given on Tuesday.
Second doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are being delayed up to four months to allow the province to give more residents first doses in a strategy aimed at boosting immunity levels sooner to foil a potential third wave of COVID-19.
Hillier confirmed Wednesday he hopes to have offered first jabs to all Ontarians 18 and older by June 20, the first day of summer.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: