TORONTO -- Ontario’s 34 local public health units will be able to vaccinate elderly residents ahead of the province’s timeline, according to Health Minister Christine Elliott, but will have to use their own appointment booking system until the provincial portal is ready.

Elliott stressed, however, that public health units will have to transition to the provincial portal for vaccine appointments once it’s launched on March 15.

“There are some areas now that have gone through their first priority populations that are now able to start booking people over age 80 with their own local systems,” Elliott told reporters at Queen’s Park Thursday. “But once our large system is up and running they will then be relying on that system.”

The Ford government has been facing intense criticism this week over its vaccine rollout plan, which the NDP says has been poorly communicated and puts Ontario at the “back of the pack.”

While the government offered a rough timeline for when people between the ages of 60 and 80 will be offered their first dose of the vaccine, Elliott and other members of the vaccine distribution taskforce cast doubt on the dates.

“Take those date with a giant grain of salt,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a member of the taskforce, told CP24 on Thursday suggesting the dates provided are “the worst case scenario (where) the wheels have fallen off the bus.”

Elliott agreed that the vaccine delivery timeline could be sped up as Health Canada approves additional vaccines in the weeks and months ahead.

“The timelines are still subject to change,” Elliott said. “If they are approved in short order we will be able to open those mass vaccination clinics sooner.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said residents anxiously awaiting a vaccine would feel “betrayed” if the government was playing games with the timeline.

“If the government is purposely suggesting that that we're not going to be getting this vaccine rollout up and running until the middle of March, only that they can then claim victory because they did it sooner. That's really disrespectful to the people of Ontario,” Horwath said.

The health minister said the government is trying to work out any bugs in the online booking tool in order to avoid the system crashes that were experienced in Alberta when that province’s booking tool went live.

“We don't want to rush to failure, we want to make sure that when the system is ready it's not going to crash,” Elliott said.

A call centre is expected to accompany Ontario’s online booking tool for those who have difficulties accessing the online portol.