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WATCH: Ontario preparing to carry out mass vaccine clinics across the province

Local health units will lead the programs in every community

Ontario is moving ahead with the wider roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine programs with plans for numerous mass vaccination sites at hockey arenas and community centres, and smaller vaccination clinics at smaller venues in towns around the province.

This will take place right away for finishing up second doses of vaccines and then into late March and early April for more members of the general public.

Some of the evolving details of Ontario's vaccination program were outlined Wednesday morning by retired General Rick Hillier who heads up Ontario's vaccine task force.

"On the first week of March, next week, we will go into what is truly a transition phase," Hillier told a teleconference briefing from Queen's Park. 

He said Ontario will be moving toward phase two "when we have larger (numbers of) doses, larger numbers of vaccines arriving in Ontario."

Hillier said that's when the plan is to wrap up the vaccine programs, providing second doses, to vulnerable populations.

"Starting next week we will focus very much on completing those long term care homes, the high risk retirement homes, the elder care facilities and retirement homes across Ontario."

Hillier said most of this effort will be taking place in March as the Phase Two of the Ontario vaccine program is set to begin in April. 

"Our priorities will be those more aged, those that are disproportionately affected and then our essential workers."

He said this will involve efforts from public health units, from local hospitals, from pharmacies and with the collaboration of health care professionals, such as local family physicians who can help out at clinics across Ontario.

Hillier said public health units will be taking the lead on these efforts, as they bring the expertise needed to do the job better than any other sector in the healthcare spectrum. He said local hospitals will be involved, but not in the primary sense. 

He said the decision was made to have hospitals take a secondary role in the vaccine program because it was seen as more important to keep hospitals prepared in case the pandemic got worse.  

"We wanted to keep the hospitals free and prepared to look after patients or people who might contract COVID-19 if, God forbid, we get a third wave," said Hillier. 

Hillier added that hospitals told him they wanted to be fully involved in the vaccine program.

"They're co-ordinating and collaborating with the public health units and that's an awesome thing, but at the same time if COVID-19 surges again, they're going to be prepared to look after people and we won't rely on them totally for the vaccination rollout," said Hillier.

The province is also working with pharmacy companies to synchronize how much of the vaccine rollout will be carried out by local pharmacies. He said a pilot project will be carried out during March to work out any problems with the plan being to have a vaccine program ready for Phase Two in April.

"We will probably look at 10 to 20 per cent of our vaccines flowing through the pharmacies at the start," said Hillier.

Another development is the creation of an online appointment system and customer service call centre for Ontario residents needing to get information and set up their vaccine times. Hillier said this new system is scheduled "to go live" on March 15, 2021. He said this will be done in collaboration with public health units across Ontario.

Hillier said he has met with health units across the province and is confident "they are ready to go" as part of the provincial plan.

"We have asked each public health unit, with all of those resources, to make sure that they can rise to a minimum of 10,000 vaccinations per day," said Hillier.

"There are 34 public health units in Ontario and you can do the math quite easily, that given the number of vaccines that we could get we can ramp up our capacity to put them in the arms of people very quickly across Ontario," Hillier continued.

"Obviously some of the smaller public health units would not ever get to that level because they would never have enough vaccines," he added.