More restrictions coming as province extends mass COVID vaccination to 60-year-olds

“We are fighting a new enemy that is more dangerous. We need to be nimble.”

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Mass COVID-19 vaccination will extend to anyone over 60 in most of Ontario beginning Wednesday as the province enters Phase 2 of its vaccine rollout plan. People 60 and over in Ottawa and other regions will be able to start booking vaccination appointments then.

The move comes amid steeply rising case counts, rapidly filling intensive care units and growing concern the Ontario government isn’t doing enough to slow the deadlier third wave of the pandemic.

At a press conference Tuesday, Premier Doug Ford said the province would introduce additional restrictions and actions as early as Wednesday.

“This is moving day by day and hour by hour,” said Ford. “We are fighting a new enemy that is more dangerous. We need to be nimble.”

Last Thursday, just before the Easter long weekend, the province pulled its so-called emergency brake, putting the entire province into a shutdown that has been criticized for not going far enough to make a difference during a dangerous point in the pandemic. It is less restrictive than the lockdown the province went into a year ago. Even Ford, whose government made the decision to leave malls open, complained about the number of people he saw outside a major Toronto mall over the weekend.

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“I was truly hoping people wouldn’t be going in there,” he said. “A lot of people are going into malls and wandering around and coming out with no bags. You can’t do that. Going to the mall is not essential.”

Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches joined her counterparts in hard-hit Peel and Toronto over the weekend in asking the province’s chief medical officer of health to impose tougher restrictions in an effort to get surging cases under control. The medical officers also asked the province to reduce the number of businesses allowed to remain open.

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Since then, Peel has closed schools and Toronto announced schools there would close as of Wednesday, but Etches said she wants schools to remain open, saying closing them will cause harm.

Alex Munter, president and CEO of CHEO, and officials from children’s hospitals across the province called for stricter restrictions and priority vaccinations for essential workers in hot-spot neighbourhoods, including teachers, in order to try to keep schools open.

“As leaders in children’s health care, we believe that schools should be the last to close and the first to open.”

The Ontario Hospital Association, the Ontario Medical Association and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario have also called on the province to do more to limit COVID-19 transmission.

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There have also been growing calls for the province to vaccinate workers who are unable to work from home, including teachers.

Ford gave no details, but suggested the province might send mobile clinics to vaccinate workers at factories in the GTA where some of the biggest outbreaks have been centred. He also said the province has talked about vaccinating teachers, but noted that would mean taking vaccines away from older, vulnerable groups. He said 97 per cent of people who have died of COVID-19 in hospitals were over the age of 60. Essential workers who cannot work from home are not scheduled to begin receiving vaccines until mid-May, according to an updated plan released by the province Tuesday.

That vaccination plan, which marks the start of Phase 2 in the province, focuses on age and at-risk populations. It lowers the age limit for people eligible for mass vaccination clinics to 60 and targets people 50 and over in hot-spot communities.

In Ottawa, that work in high priority areas was already being done.

Anthony Di Monte, Ottawa’s general manager for emergency and protective services, said the province identifying three hot-spot postal codes in Ottawa will not alter the work already being done in 21 priority neighbourhoods where pop-up vaccination clinics have been held.

“This release does not impact the areas of focus in the City of Ottawa,” said Di Monte. “Locally, the Medical Officer of Health has authority to further focus on priority neighbourhoods within these postal codes.”

As of Tuesday, more than 2.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered across the province, covering 18.5 per cent of Ontarians with at least one dose. Eighty-five per cent of people over 80, 68 per cent of people between 75 and 79 and 42 per cent of people between 70 and 74 have received at least one dose.

Ninety-two per cent of long-term care residents, who have suffered the highest numbers of deaths during the pandemic, have been vaccinated, along with more than 80 per cent of staff, according to the province. All retirement home residents and 66 per cent of staff members have been vaccinated.

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Ford countered criticism that the province continues to have large amounts of vaccine doses in freezers — around 1.5 million as of Tuesday. He said the vast majority of those doses are already scheduled to go into peoples’ arms and the bulk arrived over the weekend.

The province received 584,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines over the weekend and is expecting another 120,000 doses this week. Those vaccines will go to people over the age of 55 and will be administered in pharmacies and some physicians’ offices.

The province also received more than 225,000 doses of Moderna on April 3 and is expecting more than 700,000 additional doses in the next two weeks. It will receive close to 400,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines weekly from now until at least the end of May.

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being used at the mass vaccination clinics that will include people over 60 starting this week.

Information about booking COVID-19 vaccines is available at covid-19.ontario.ca.

epayne@postmedia.com

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