TORONTO — The former head of the Canadian Forces will lead Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Premier Doug Ford said Monday, announcing the high-profile appointment as Toronto and a neighbouring hot spot went into lockdown.
Ford said retired Gen. Rick Hillier is ideally suited for the job because it will be one of the largest immunization efforts in a generation.
“Rolling out and distributing this vaccine, it will be a massive logistical challenge,” the premier said. “Without the right planning it risks being a logistical nightmare … we need the discipline that only a general can bring to this task.”
Hillier’s appointment comes less than a week after Health Minister Christine Elliott said Ontario will receive 1.6 million doses of Pfizer’s new vaccine and 800,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine in early 2021.
Hillier will lead a task force that will advise on delivery, storage and distribution of the vaccine, Elliott said Monday.
The group will also look at how it can support the health-care system to deliver a phased vaccination program that will initially prioritize vulnerable populations, followed by a mass immunization campaign, Elliott added.
Hillier said he’s eager to get to work this week and noted that deploying a COVID-19 vaccine will have things in common with other large-scale operations he’s led in the past.
“The military gives you incredible experiences and leadership in putting those ‘big muscle’ movements together,” he said. “It’s all about the fact that I want to do my duty and serve the people of Ontario as best I can.”
The government noted, however, that while vaccines are on the way, people still need to follow public health rules to limit the spread of the virus.
For residents of Toronto and Peel Region, that means living under tight restrictions during a 28-day lockdown period that began Monday.
Under the rules of the lockdown, non-essential retailers can only offer curbside pickup, while restaurants are closed to all but takeout and delivery orders. Personal care services, such as hair salons, have also been forced to close and indoor sports facilities are shuttered.
Schools and childcare centres remain open, as do grocery stores, pharmacies and other retailers considered essential.
Ford acknowledged Monday that the lockdown will hurt small businesses and encouraged people to place orders online or for curbside pickup with small retailers where possible.
“It’s terrible, but nothing is fair about this COVID,” he said. “I’ve been doing everything we can to protect and support the small businesses out there.”
The government also announced Monday that it plans to extend the term of its top doctor while it continues to fight the pandemic.
Dr. David Williams’ term was set to end Feb 16, when he was to retire, but the province asked him to stay on until September.
Some within the health-care sector have criticized Williams for his handling of the pandemic, claiming he hasn’t provided clear guidance and has been slow to impose tougher measures when needed.
Ford has repeatedly defended Williams, saying he has been key to Ontario’s fight against COVID-19.
“The easy thing for Dr. Williams to do (would be) to wash his hands and say I don’t need this any more,” Ford said Monday. “He’s not built that way.”
Williams said it would be “irresponsible” of him to retire in the middle of the global health crisis and added that he hopes to help ensure a smooth transition to his successor starting next spring.
“Perhaps by the spring and into the summer we may be out of the worst of it with vaccines … and (I can) hand things over in a less tumultuous state to a successor,” he said.
The CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, who earlier this year called for Williams’ resignation, said she was surprised the province is extending his term.
Doris Grinspun said Williams has not provided clear and decisive leadership since COVID-19 hit.
“This is about performance during a major pandemic,” Doris Grinspun said. “We are in a second wave, which is worse than the first. Any miscalculation or mistake or lack of courageous action will result in higher burden of illness and additional waves.”
Meanwhile, Williams hinted Monday that more public health guidance on how families should spend the holidays could be coming Wednesday.
“I think (Christmas) will not be normal, especially in some areas in a COVID context,” he said.
Williams was criticized last week for suggesting that some regions could be in the “green” zone for pandemic restrictions by Christmas if the province’s COVID-19 situation improved.
Ontario reported a record 1,589 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and 19 new deaths due to the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press
- Canada’s top doctor says to avoid non-essential travel as B.C. explores legal options - January 16, 2021
- Trudeau leaves door open to tighter travel ban, eyeing COVID-19 mutations abroad - January 15, 2021
- Pfizer-BioNTech cutting back vaccine deliveries to Canada due to production issues - January 15, 2021