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Ontario's vaccine rollout could look different across health units: solicitor general

TORONTO — Ontario's COVID-19 vaccine rollout could look different in each of its 34 public health units as the province receives more doses in the coming weeks, the government said Monday.

TORONTO — Ontario's COVID-19 vaccine rollout could look different in each of its 34 public health units as the province receives more doses in the coming weeks, the government said Monday.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said Ontario is "empowering" local health units to draw up their own specific plans to distribute the vaccine, and all have been submitted to the government for approval.

Vaccines will be distributed to health units based on population, Jones said, and while they must follow the province's plan to vaccinate priority populations first, they can also determine the best way to serve the needs of their communities.

"We are ensuring through our vaccine distribution that the people most close 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," she said.

Ontario expects to receive a more steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks as delivery issues that previously slowed the rollout have been resolved.

The province has so far been focused on vaccinating the highest priority groups, which include residents and staff in long-term care homes.

Residents aged 80 and older, Indigenous adults, and seniors in congregate care have been identified as the next in line for the shot.

The province has said it's creating an online booking system to help expand its vaccine rollout in the coming weeks.

Ontario's health minister said Monday that the rollout will need to look different in different communities.

"The rollout in Toronto will be very different from the roll out in North Bay, Thunder Bay and so on," Christine Elliott said.

"It's up to the local medical officers of health to fashion a plan, whether it's going to be mass vaccination clinics, whether it's going to be through pharmacies, whether it's going to be through physicians offices."

The chairman of the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health said health units are ready to respond to the vaccine rollout based on local needs and the government’s priority guidelines.

"Working in partnership with municipalities and a multitude of other stakeholders and agencies, each health unit, based on their very clear understanding of local demographics, disparities and population needs, will create and execute a plan reflective of these factors,” Dr. Paul Roumeliotis said in a statement.

Opposition leader Andrea Horwath said the province needs to take a more active approach to the local rollouts and ensure all health units have the necessary resources required to speed up distribution.

"It's worrisome that the government looks like they're planning to lay any problems at the feet of public health units, which is unfair," she said.

"The government really needs to have a much stronger and effective control over what's going to happen with the vaccination."

Liberal health critic John Fraser said local health units will need support from the province, including faster progress on the online booking portal promised to co-ordinate vaccination appointments.

"The government is not ready," he said. "And that's because they've been slow to make decisions and provide the support they need to for public health."

The second phase of Ontario's distribution plan, slated for April, is to target the 80 and older group, and then residents aged 65 to 75 through primary care clinics and pharmacies.

It also includes mass vaccinations sites, led by local health units, for residents aged 16-60, and mobile sites for high risk groups.

The rollout is then set to shift into a third phase in August, when all other remaining residents can get the shot.

A total of 569,455 vaccine doses have been administered in Ontario so far.

The province reported 1,058 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 more deaths linked to the virus on Monday.

Ontario's seven-day daily case average is currently 1,045, slightly lower than the average last week of 1,051 cases.

Cases of more contagious COVID-19 variants have grown to a total of 400 in the province, with 390 of the variant first identified in the U.K, known as B.1.1.7.

Meanwhile, York Region returned to the province's colour-coded system of pandemic restrictions on Monday, while a stay-at-home order remained in effect for Toronto, Peel and North Bay.

York has long logged some of Ontario's highest COVID-19 case counts, but the region's top doctor requested that the government move it back to the tiered framework to bring it in line with most of the province's other regions.

The move means certain businesses that had been shuttered for weeks were allowed to open with restrictions in place.

The province's top doctor said Ontario continues to be in a "tenuous position" and stressed that people must continue to follow public health orders even if some restrictions are loosened.

"It doesn't mean that one can neglect the personal issues and responsibilities at this time," Dr. David Williams said. "In fact, there's more need for it than ever."

Toronto, Peel and North Bay remain under a stay-at-home order until at least March 8.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press