Each of Ontario’s 34 local public health units will be responsible for coming up with and carrying out their own plan to vaccinate residents in their region, the province confirmed on Monday.
The provincial government has already provided guidance on which priority groups to inoculate in each phase of the vaccination program but details on how and when to vaccinate those groups will be left up to the individual public health units.
“We are ensuring through our vaccine distribution that the people (who work) most closely to their communities, the public health units, are making the decisions on what is the fastest, and easiest, and most equitable way to ensure that people get the vaccines they need,” Sylvia Jones, Ontario’s solicitor general, said at a news conference at Queen’s Park on Monday.
“It is why we’ve empowered 34 public health units to do that and we’ve ensured by doing a distribution based on population, that as a larger public health unit comes online and needs vaccines, we distribute it from the province based on population.”
The Ford government has said that each local medical officer of health has submitted a plan to the province on how they will administer the vaccine to priority groups in the coming weeks and months.
Local public health units will be responsible for designing their own plan, contacting residents to communicate their strategy, and administering the vaccines to residents in their respective communities.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott confirmed that local medical officers of health will have to decide whether residents should be inoculated at mass vaccination sites, pharmacies, or through physicians’ offices or through a combination of all three.
The province is currently in Phase 1 of its vaccination program, which focuses on vaccinating many frontline health-care workers, chronic home care patients, and long-term care home residents. Earlier this month, the province confirmed that members of the general population who are over the age of 80 will now also be included in Phase 1.
All long-term care and high-risk retirement home residents in the province have already been offered their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and last week, the vaccine task force said that all Ontario residents who are ages 80 and over could receive their first dose within the next couple of weeks.
The first phase of the program is expected to run until the end of March but officials have said it could take longer than that to vaccinate all of Ontario’s oldest residents.
Phase 2 is expected to formally begin in April and will run through the end of July. During the second phase of Ontario’s vaccination program, an estimated 2.8 million members of the general population between the ages of 60 and 79, as well as roughly 2 million frontline essential workers, 3.1 million individuals with high-risk chronic conditions and their caregivers, 660,000 people who are part of at-risk populations and another 157,000 people living and working in other high-risk congregate settings will be vaccinated.
Vaccinations for all remaining members of Ontario’s population are currently projected to begin in August.
Speaking at Monday’s news conference, Premier Doug Ford denied the suggestion that the province is simply passing off all the heavy lifting of administering vaccines to the individual public health units.
“By no means is anyone taking a light load on this… no matter if it’s the administration, if its Gen. Hillier, he is going around the clock, public health units, everyone is working collaboratively together,” he said. “We are working side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Jones added that the province is leveraging the experience of local public health units to ensure the smooth rollout of the vaccines.
“The 34 public health units that operate across Ontario, they are not new organizations. They have historic data on their community, on the individuals and the neighbourhoods within those public health units that are more at risk. So we are capitalizing on that historic data and we are empowering professionals to make decisions based on priority guidelines that have been carefully reviewed and prepared and provided to them from the province of Ontario,” she said.
“We want to get the vaccine out quickly but we also want to make sure that the individuals, the organizations that know their communities that know which pharmacies to work with, that know the hospitals to work with, the primary care physicians, we empower them to do that work.”
But some members of the opposition have said that the program has already caused confusion among the public and some who work in the medical community.
NDP MPP France Gelinas said Monday that some family physicians were unaware of their involvement in the program until they heard it announced publicly last week.
“The Premier announced that they would be involved, which was complete news to them,” Gelinas said during Question Period on Monday. “Important health care partners—we’re talking about Ontario’s doctors here—are scrambling to figure out what is going on.”
Liberal MPP John Fraser noted that local medical officers of health may be developing plans without a complete picture as priority groups change each time the province updates its guidelines.
Elliott has said that Gen. Rick Hillier, chair of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, has been in “frequent communication” with all local medical officers of health to help them develop their strategies.
-With files from CTV Toronto’s Colin D’Mello