Ontario is expected to receive its first shipment of the newly approved Moderna COVID-19 vaccine by Wednesday and start administering it in long-term care homes this week, according to the chair of the province’s COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force.
Retired General Rick Hillier made the announcement Tuesday morning and said the province does “not have the Moderna vaccine in our hands” yet but expects to receive about 50,000 doses in the next 24 hours.
“We anticipate that Moderna will arrive tomorrow, and within 48 to 72 hours we will be vaccinating people in several long-term care homes, potentially a retirement home. And again, we'll be composing a playbook as we do that, and learning the lessons…,” Hillier said.
Although Hillier said the province is still waiting on the vaccine, federal officials did receive the first shipment of it last week in Toronto. Ottawa is responsible for dividing the vaccines among all provinces and territories.
The Moderna vaccines will be delivered to four sites in hot zones located across southern Ontario that have been hardest-hit by the virus, Hillier said.
The vaccines will initially be deployed at long-term care homes because it’s easier to transport compared to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, which needs to be stored at at least -70C.
“We want to go into one or two or three long-term care homes, we want to do it very carefully. We want to vaccinate the residents there using the staff in the homes where it's possible, augmenting them where it's necessary and preparing a playbook from that,” he said.
Currently there are 19 vaccination sites open but Hillier said he expects two more will open by next week.
As of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the province has administered more than 17,300 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. However, the inoculations represent a small number of doses that have already been shipped to the province.
Ontario has already received around 90,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 21.
The rollout of the Moderna vaccine is part of Phase 1 of the province’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout plan which is expected to inoculate 1.1 million people by April.
8.5 million people expected to be vaccinated by July
Hillier said the province expects to receive 50,000 doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in the beginning of January, followed by about 80,000 doses weekly of the Pfizer vaccine for the remainder of that month.
“And so by the end of Phase One [end of March], we hope to have vaccinated over a million health care workers, and people in the most vulnerable circumstances here in Ontario,” Hillier said. “We can't do it any faster. We don't have the vaccines coming to us any faster, and if we did we will use them more quickly.”
From April to July, 15 million doses are expected to be shipped to the province in Phase 2 and about 7.5 million people are set to receive the inoculation.
“We want to end Phase Two, with the bulk of the population, having had the opportunity to get the vaccine by the end of July,” Hillier said.
Phase 3 is set to begin near the end of July when the rest of Ontarians are expected to start receiving the vaccines at their doctor’s office or a pharmacy.
“Phase 3 for us is steady state. That is putting the COVID-19 vaccine into the same category as a shingles vaccine as a flu vaccine, and you can go to your family physician, your family clinic or the pharmacy closest to you, and you would be able to get your vaccine…,” he said.
The Ministry of Health also confirmed on Monday that vaccines are not being held back as they initially were in the beginning of the month to guarantee that those who were vaccinated would receive their necessary second dose.
“We are not holding or reserving doses, and are vaccinating as many people as possible, counting on confirmed shipments of the vaccine that will arrive over the coming weeks for second doses,” the statement read.
Ontario recorded a new single-day high of daily COVID-19 cases on Tuesday with 2,553 infections, beating the previous record of 2,447 on Christmas Eve.
Seventy-eight more people died from the disease in Ontario in the past 48 hours.
The province recorded 1,939 new cases on Monday, 2,005 on Sunday, 2,142 on Boxing Day and 2,159 on Christmas Day.
‘We will not take any more days off’
Hillier’s announcement on Tuesday comes after he apologized Monday evening for scaling back the vaccination schedule over the holidays.
On Christmas Eve, most vaccination clinics were open with shortened hours and all clinics were then closed on Dec. 25 and Dec. 26. Just five hospitals opened clinics on Sunday, while 10 were operating Monday.
After receiving backlash for pausing the vaccination schedule, Hillier said “we got it wrong” and that he takes “full responsibility” for the decision.
“We heard loudly from people this past 36 to 48 hours, they want it rolling all the time and we are, as of this morning. We have 19 hospitals that are acting as vaccination sites, we will add to that in this coming week, we will be working straight through. We will not take any more days off until we win this war against COVID-19,” Hillier said on Tuesday.
In a statement on Monday, the Ministry of Health said the modified holiday schedule had been requested by hospitals due to “staffing challenges.”
“As a result, over the holidays hospital sites administering the vaccines requested to operate on slightly amended schedules, recognizing the challenges that the holidays can have on staffing levels in hospitals and long-term care homes,” the statement read.
However, Hillier later said that staffing wasn’t the issue and that the government wanted to give front-line workers a break during the holidays.
“We did it with honourable intentions. We felt that the folks working at long-term care homes who have reduced their staff somewhat working during the traditional holiday season to maybe get a little bit more of a break to some of the people who have been labouring so hard for the last 10 months…,” he said.
A number of doctors, including Ontario Medical Association President Samantha Hill, told CP24 that they would have gladly volunteered their time to keep vaccinations going over the holidays.