UPDATE - March 5, 2021: Ontario’s updated COVID-19 vaccination plan says that shots will be administered based on multiple risk factors, including neighbourhood.
TORONTO — Two ministers and the premier took a stab at answering the same question from NDP Leader Andrea Horwath at Queen’s Park Wednesday. But none of them gave her what she was looking for — a commitment to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for people in the highest-risk neighbourhoods.
Ontario’s 34 local public health units have been charged with administering vaccines, but it’s the provincial government that designed the rollout plan and identified priority populations.
Some regions, like York and Waterloo, have already started vaccinating people over 80. Toronto, which includes many of the highest-risk neighbourhoods, isn’t currently booking appointments.
“The question I’m asking is about those front-line workers and COVID heroes who have been there for us all the way through, folks in Brampton, folks in Scarborough, folks in Weston, folks in Jane and Finch. These folks are the ones that actually did all the heavy lifting during COVID-19,” Horwath said.
Horwath noted Ontario’s science advisory table published a brief last week that found a strategy that takes age and neighbourhood into account would prevent 18 per cent more hospitalizations, 19 per cent more intensive care unit (ICU) admissions and 10 per cent more deaths than a strategy that only takes age into account. It would save 168 lives, the scientists said.
“When is the government going to commit to vaccinating these workers and these neighbourhoods?” Horwath asked.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said local public health units can make that decision, because they are in charge of actually administering vaccines.
“They’re doing an excellent job, and all we need to do is make sure they have sufficient supply.”
She said Toronto is already making sure communities that have congregate settings, like homeless shelters, have quick access.
Premier Doug Ford repeated Jones’ point and said Horwath was being too negative.
“... The good news is, rather than the opposition party of doom and gloom and the world’s coming to an end, the facts are we vaccinated more people than anyone in the entire country with 754,000 vaccines,” he said.
“There’s one problem here. We need more vaccines.”
In fact, the province’s vaccine rollout has been widely criticized. Ontario twice missed its own self-imposed deadline to vaccinate all residents in long-term care homes, who make up more than 50 per cent of the people who’ve died of COVID-19.
The science table brief that Horwath mentioned said that COVID-19 has also taken a disproportionate toll on disadvantaged and racialized urban communities.
“COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations are strongly associated with individuals’ age and neighbourhood of residence ... The highest risk populations can be reliably identified using information on individuals’ age and neighbourhood of residence.”
The hardest-hit neighbourhoods are in Toronto, Peel, York and Windsor-Essex, the report said.
HuffPost Canada asked these municipalities Wednesday if they will take neighbourhood into consideration.
Toronto will give out vaccines based on “provincial priorities and vaccine allotments,” a spokesperson said, though many details are still being worked out.
York’s plan “overlays data on region maps and includes epidemiological data from the response, socio-economic data and density,” Patrick Casey, director of corporate communications for the Regional Municipality of York, said in a statement.
“Our demographic characteristics are diverse and look different in areas across the region; we have a large variety of dense areas and some more rural; this led us to our hybrid approach with drive-thru, static and mobile clinics,” Casey said.
Spokespeople for Peel and Windsor-Essex did not provide statements.