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'We're prepared.' Ontario vows vaccine booking system, launching Monday, will handle demand –



Ontario vows that a vaccine booking website launching Monday morning will be up to the task of handling the high demand of eligible applications.

The new portal, which goes live at 8 a.m., will only be available to people who are turning 80 or older this year, Premier Doug Ford said at a rare Sunday briefing, adding that early tests have been “seamless.”

The province has gone to great lengths to ensure the system is robust and can maximize vaccinations, according to retired Gen. Rick Hillier, the head of the province’s vaccine distribution task force.

“We’ve done the initial work,” Hillier said. “We’re prepared to ramp up even further if necessary, or if the call centre doesn’t get that many calls, we’ll ramp back down when it’s appropriate.”

More than 2,200 operators will be answering calls, at the capacity of about 10,000 calls per hour, Hillier said, emphasizing that it’s about two to three times the capacity of Quebec and California.

Online, there are more than 800,000 appointments available. And since Friday, the province has used an online system to book more than 15,000 appointments for Toronto Public Health “without a flaw,” he said.

The new system will be accepting appointments for first and second vaccine doses at mass immunization clinics. Bookings can be made at or by calling 1-888-999-6488.

When booking an appointment, people will be asked for:

  • Information from their green Ontario health card
  • Birth date
  • Postal code
  • Email address and/or phone number
  • Anyone with a red and white health card, or who needs help with booking, can call the provincial vaccine information line number at 1-888-999-6488 beginning Monday
  • The provincial booking system will direct people without a health card to their public health unit for identity validation.

First and second vaccination appointments will be arranged at the same time.

Ford urged people younger than the designated age bracket not to book an appointment.

“If you are not 80 or older or helping somebody who is, please do not try to book an appointment,” Ford said. “We need to take care of our elderly first.”

Hillier said the province is “confident” in the system’s capacities.



“We have stress-tested the system over the last week here,” Hillier said. “If it does go down for a while, we’ll fix it and get it back up. But while it is down, there will not be a single empty chair in a vaccination clinic. The clinics are full out for this next week and a half to 10 days. There will not be a single empty seat as a result of that.”

Additionally, most public health units and hospitals have their own online booking systems or call centres, which will ensure that people continue to be vaccinated even if there is a system error, Hillier said.

If the federal government could supply more vaccines, the province would be able to inoculate 150,000 people per day, or 4.8 million per month, Ford said. Ontario is anticipating to receive 1.4 million doses in March.

“Make no mistake about this. We are ready. We’re ready to ramp up immediately to 150,000 vaccinations a day. We just need more vaccines.”

Ford also clarified that while the data shows that province has 430,000 doses in freezers, 160,000 of those are AstraZeneca vaccines, which have been sent to pharmacies, and another 160,000 are Moderna shots that arrived Saturday. That leaves about 120,000 doses, he said.

The launch of the provincial portal marks the latest step in Ontario’s mass immunization drive, which introduced new elements targeting some 60- to 64-year-olds in recent days.

A pilot project allowing pharmacies to administer shots launched last week in the Toronto, Windsor-Essex and Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington health units.

Family doctors in six other public health units — Toronto, Peel, Hamilton, Guelph, Peterborough and Simcoe-Muskoka — also began delivering vaccines to eligible patients in the same age bracket as of Saturday.

Both pilot projects will see eligible residents receive shots of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 1,747 COVID-19 cases, the highest number in more than a month, and 15 more deaths, according to its latest report released Sunday morning.

The last time the count was this high was on Feb. 1 when 1,969 additional cases were reported. But Sunday’s increase was blamed on data cleanup.

“Today’s case count is higher than expected due to a data catch-up process related to the provincial CCM system,” a health ministry spokesperson said.

With files from The Canadian Press

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Ontario hospitals may have to withhold care as COVID-19 fills ICUs



By Allison Martell and Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Doctors in the Canadian province of Ontario may soon have to decide who can and cannot receive treatment in intensive care as the number of coronavirus infections sets records and patients are packed into hospitals still stretched from a December wave.

Canada‘s most populous province is canceling elective surgeries, admitting adults to a major children’s hospital and preparing field hospitals after the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs jumped 31% to 612 in the week leading up to Sunday, according to data from the Ontario Hospital Association.

The sharp increase in Ontario hospital admissions is also straining supplies of tocilizumab, a drug often given to people seriously ill with COVID-19.

Hospital care is publicly funded in Canada, generally free at the point of care for residents. But new hospital beds have not kept pace with population growth, and shortages of staff and space often emerge during bad flu seasons.

Ontario’s hospitals fared relatively well during the first wave of the pandemic last year, in part because the province quickly canceled elective surgeries.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario told doctors last Thursday that the province was considering “enacting the critical care triage protocol,” something that was not done during earlier waves of the virus. Triage protocols help doctors decide who to treat in a crisis.

“Everybody’s under extreme stress,” said Eddy Fan, an ICU doctor at Toronto’s University Health Network. He said no doctor wants to contemplate a triage protocol but there are only so many staff.

“There’s going to be a breaking point, a point at which we can’t fill those gaps any longer.”

In a statement, the health ministry said Ontario has not activated the protocol. A September draft suggested doctors could withhold life-sustaining care from patients with a less than 20% chance of surviving 12 months. A final version has not been made public.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table had been forecasting the surge for months, said member and critical care physician Laveena Munshi. During a recent shift she wanted to call the son of a patient only to discover he was in an ICU across the street.

“The horror stories that we’re seeing in the hospital are like ones out of apocalyptic movies,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be the reality we’re seeing one year into a pandemic.”

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In COVID-19 vaccination pivot, Canada targets frontline workers



By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada is shifting its vaccination campaign to target frontline workers, moving away from a largely age-based rollout as the country tries to get a handle on the raging third wave of the pandemic.

Canada‘s approach thus far has left unvaccinated many so-called “essential workers,” like daycare providers, bus drivers and meatpackers, all of whom are among those at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provinces are now trying to adjust their strategy to tackle the surge driven by new variants.

Targeting frontline workers and addressing occupation risk is vital if Canada wants to get its third wave under control, says Simon Fraser University mathematician and epidemiologist Caroline Colijn, who has modelled Canadian immunization strategies and found “the sooner you put essential workers [in the vaccine rollout plan], the better.”

Initially, Canada prioritized long-term care residents and staff for the vaccines, as well as the very elderly, health workers, residents of remote communities and Indigenous people.

Targeting vaccinations by age made sense early on in a pandemic that ravaged Canada‘s long-term care homes, Colijn said. But now, immunizing those at highest risk of transmission brings the greatest benefit.

“If you protect these individuals you also protect someone in their 60s whose only risk is when they go to the store. … The variants are here now. So if we pivot now, but it takes us two months to do it, then we will lose that race.”

Data released on Tuesday from the Institute of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences showed that Toronto’s neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections had the lowest vaccination rates, underscoring the disparities in vaccination.


On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to have mobile vaccine clinics target COVID-19 “hotspots” and high-risk worksites, although he stopped short of giving people paid time off to get the shot.

Karim Kurji, medical officer of health in York Region north of Toronto, characterizes the shift in vaccination priority from age to transmission risk as moving from defence to offence.

“It’s a juggernaut in terms of the immunization machinery, and turning it around takes a lot of effort,” Kurji said.

Meanwhile, officials in the western province of Alberta say they are offering vaccines to more than 2,000 workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River, site of one of Canada‘s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. Provincial officials said in a statement they are looking to expand the pilot to other plants.

Quebec will start vaccinating essential workers such as those in education, childcare and public safety in Montreal, where neighbourhoods with the highest vaccination rates have been among those with the lowest recorded infection rates.

The people doing the highest-risk jobs, from an infectious disease perspective, are more likely to be poor, non-white and new Canadians, health experts say. They are less likely to have paid leave to get tested or vaccinated or stay home when sick and are more likely to live in crowded or multi-unit housing. They need to be prioritized for vaccination and their vaccination barriers addressed, experts say.

Naheed Dosani, a Toronto palliative care physician and health justice activist, said making vaccines available to high-risk communities is not enough without addressing barriers to access.

“The face of COVID-19 and who was being impacted changed dramatically. The variants seemed to take hold in communities where essential workers live. … This [pivot] is a step in the right direction and will hopefully save lives.”


(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis)

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Canada finance minister: Pandemic an opportunity to bring in national childcare



OTTAWA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic and its damaging impact on women has underlined the need for a national childcare plan, which would also help the economic recovery, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Thursday.

Since taking up her job in August, Freeland has repeatedly spoken about a “feminist agenda,” and has said childcare will be part of a stimulus package worth up to C$100 billion ($79.6 billion) over three years. She will unveil details in her April 19 budget.

“I really believe COVID-19 has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany … on the importance of early learning and childcare,” Freeland told a online convention of Canada‘s ruling Liberal Party.

The budget is set to be a springboard for an election that Liberal insiders say is likely in the second half of the year.

Canadian governments of various stripes have mused about a national childcare program for decades but never acted, thanks in part to the cost and also the need to negotiate with the 10 provinces, which deliver many social programs.

Freeland said a childcare program would help counter “an incredibly dangerous drop” in female employment since the start of the pandemic.

“It is a surefire way to drive jobs and economic growth … you have higher participation of women in the labor force,” Freeland said. “My hope … is that being able to make that economic argument as well is going be to one of the ways that we get this done.”

Freeland, who is taking part this week in meetings of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and the International Monetary Fund, said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had told her they saw early learning and child care as a driver for economic recovery.

($1=1.2560 Canadian dollars)


(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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