TORONTO — All long-term care residents, workers and essential caregivers in COVID-19 hot spots will be vaccinated by Jan. 21, the Ontario government said Tuesday as it faced criticism over the slow pace of the vaccine rollout.

The pledge covers those living and working in nursing homes in Toronto, Peel Region, York Region and Windsor-Essex, but the province did not offer a timeline for the rest of the seniors homes in the province.

The government also announced Tuesday that it will start administering COVID-19 vaccines in Ontario’s Indigenous communities later this week. ORNGE air ambulances will assist with efforts to bring the vaccine to 31 fly-in communities in the north.

Premier Doug Ford acknowledged the government’s vaccine rollout plan had hit “a couple of bumps in the road,” but he expressed confidence that the Jan. 21 deadline would be met.

“We said that we’re looking for the 21st, (but) our target is the 18th, that would be great,” Ford said. “But we will have every long-term care patient and worker that wants to get vaccinated…and then we’re going to move right across the province.”

The news came on a day that the province reported 22 more residents in long-term care home had died, bringing the total to 2,865 since the start of the pandemic.

So far, approximately 50,000 long-term care and hospital workers have received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while nearly 3,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine have also been administered.

The province said Tuesday it has received 95,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 53,000 doses from Moderna, with another 56,000 doses expected to arrive next week.

An additional 240,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are expected to arrive over the next three weeks, the government said, adding that it will receive two million doses throughout the winter. 

“We’re ramping up,” Ford said. “I just look forward to getting more vaccines, that’s what we need.”

The province also said that starting Wednesday, it will issue new guidance to hospitals allowing them to move the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to long-term care homes for the first time.

Previously, the vaccine, which requires deep-cold storage, could not be moved after it was delivered.

As a result, the Pfizer-BioNTech shot was largely being given out in hospitals to health-care workers while long-term care residents have been receiving the Moderna shot.

Retire general Rick Hillier, who is leading Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, said the ability to move the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will speed up access for long-term care residents in hard-hit homes.

“We want to do it carefully,” he said. “We’ll start using Pfizer to…accelerate the process in long-term care homes.”

Ottawa is piloting the efforts to transport the vaccine and the city’s medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, hailed the change as an important milestone.

“This is the first opportunity to bring the Pfizer vaccine to some of our most vulnerable residents which previously could only be administered at the Ottawa Hospital,” she said. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic continued to wreak havoc, with the province reporting 3,128 new cases on Tuesday and 51 new deaths due to the virus.

In total, 1,347 people are hospitalized due to COVID-19, including 325 in intensive care. And 245 people are on ventilators in hospital.

The spike in the number of deaths forced a hospital network in London, Ont., to store bodies in a mobile unit after its morgue reached capacity. 

The London Health Sciences Centre said Tuesday it is using a mobile unit to store bodies — a temporary measure until the situation is resolved in the next few days.

Nathan Stall, a geriatrician and researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said the government’s goal is not ambitious enough and it should not just focus on homes in COVID-19 hot spots. 

Ontario has enough of the vaccine to immunize the province’s approximately 130,000 long-term care and retirement home residents much faster, he said.

“We could do this within days,” he said. “Health-care workers are growing increasingly agitated and frustrated, especially with this goal of two and a half weeks to vaccinate such a small proportion of the homes.” 

Stall said the province could save lives and relieve some of the pressure on its hospitals if it moved more aggressively.

“Once we get this done, the death toll should really plummet,” he said. “If we could actually get the situation under control in long-term care, we would take so much pressure off our health-care system.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford’s government is not moving fast enough when it comes to vaccinating seniors. 

“People in long-term care are not protected,” she said. “There really shouldn’t be any long-term care home that’s not a priority right now.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press

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