Family doctors in Ontario say unless the province quickly fixes its bungled COVID-19 vaccine rollout, we’re unlikely to achieve herd immunity by the end of summer 2021.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Ontario had administered only 14,000 doses of the vaccine two weeks after receiving the first shipment, according to retired Gen. Rick Hillier, head of the province’s vaccine task force. That’s fewer doses per capita than any other Canadian province, according to biostatistician Ryan Imgrund. (Doses do not equal people vaccinated, as everyone who receives a dose of the currently approved vaccines will need a second shot.)
In a press conference Tuesday, Hillier said stopping vaccines for Christmas holidays was the “wrong decision” and that the province aims to have 8.5 million people vaccinated by July.
“We will not take any more days off until we win this war against COVID-19,” he said.
But several doctors told VICE World News they’re very concerned about the pace of the rollout, and that Ontario needs to change its approach in order to meet its stated targets.
“They do not even acknowledge that this workforce of primary care providers exist. We have the skills and the ability to do much of the vaccination,” said Ottawa-based family physician Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth.
Dr. Jennifer Kwan, a Burlington, Ontario family physician who has been crunching COVID-19 numbers, told VICE World News that if Ontario were to keep giving out vaccines at its current pace, the province would not achieve herd immunity until 2054. Kwan said she fully expects the numbers to pick up, since the vaccine rollout is just beginning. She said the province needs to distribute 67,500 shots a day to have 80 percent of adults in the province vaccinated by the end of next September.
The province’s vaccine rollout plan is happening in three phases, with the first being focused on health-care workers, people in long-term care and retirement homes, and Indigenous communities. Hillier said when phase 1 wraps up by the end of March, more than 1 million Ontarians will be vaccinated.
Hillier said more than 15 million vaccine doses will flow into the province in phase 2, April to June, with the intention of giving 150,000 doses per day by using hospitals, “mass vaccination sites,” mobile clinics, and pharmacies. Phase 2 will include people in congregate settings, like shelters, adults over 70, and essential workers.
Hillier said by phase 3, sometime in the late summer, people will be able to get the vaccine at their family doctor or a clinic or pharmacy.
Kaplan-Myrth said family doctors should be incorporated into the plan much earlier, especially since the holiday shutdown was due to staffing issues. She said many family physicians and other healthcare providers volunteered their services at the beginning of the pandemic, but haven’t been called on by the province.
“In Ontario, there are 15,000 family doctors. Our day to day work is mixing vaccines, administering vaccines,” she said. “You have to let go of the bureaucracy, you have to let go of the idea that you’re not a resource that can be used because you’re not already a resource that has been used.”
Currently, the province has 95,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine at 19 hospitals; it has to be stored at -70 Celcius, though Pfizer has said it can last up to five days in 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. The province is slated to receive 53,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine—which can be stored at regular refrigerator temperatures for up to 30 days—on Wednesday.
Hillier said the Moderna vaccine will be moved into long-term-care homes and staff there will be able to administer it. Kaplan-Myrth said family doctors should also be able to help out with the Moderna vaccine, given its storage requirements are less complicated.
Concerns about the vaccine rollout come as Premier Doug Ford is facing criticism for his handling of the second wave of the pandemic, including his decision to start a province-wide lockdown on Boxing Day as opposed to before Christmas. On Tuesday, Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips admitted he and his wife left Canada on a “personal trip” to St. Bart’s on December 13, despite federal government recommendations to avoid non-essential travel. Phillips has since apologized and said he’s trying to end his vacation early.
Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice advocate, said the delayed lockdown likely caused upwards of 10,000 new COVID-19 cases and 200 preventable deaths.
As of Monday, there were 322 patients in intensive care units with the virus, meaning people with other critical issues are at risk of being denied care.
“COVID-19 doesn’t take vacations,” Dosani said. “We need a 24/7 operation to address this.”
Dosani said more delays mean more deaths, particularly amongst frail seniors and low-income racialized people, many of whom are working essential jobs.
“When they make policy decisions to not react quickly or urgently, they're actually telling us which lives they care about and which lives they don’t care about.”
He wants to see nurse practitioners, primary care doctors, and community health centres incorporated into the vaccine rollout. He also said he’d also like to see more outreach around the vaccines that addresses fears Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people have about a healthcare system that is often racist towards them.
Canada has administered more than 71,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in total, and is fifth in the world per capita, far behind the top two countries, Israel and Bahrain.
The U.S. is distributing four times as many doses per capita as Canada (0.64 per 100 people versus 0.14 per 100 people).
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter