How is the Ontario government screwing up vaccines this badly?

OPINION: Yes, I know the vaccines are supplied by Ottawa. But this province isn’t even maxing out what the struggling federal effort gets us
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 28, 2021
Premier Doug Ford watches a health-care worker prepare a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a UHN vaccine clinic in Toronto on January 7, 2021. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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It would be a disservice to the readers and to history to treat the COVID-19 pandemic as a political story. Politics matter, and so does leadership. Politicians and public officials can and should be held to account by the voters, when possible. The opposition has a duty to oppose. But there is a danger, in my profession, of falling back into old habits formed after years of writing about politics and viewing the pandemic primarily through that lens: Does this help or hurt Politician X? Is this good or bad news for Party Y?

It's not that the political lens isn't valid or important. It's pretty obvious that some leaders are going to come out of this enduring disaster with their reputation in tatters; some lucky few might find a way to ride it to higher public esteem. The possibility of a federal election this spring makes it impossible to entirely ignore the political element. The pandemic is going to change our politics and shape them, but first and foremost, this is a human story — people will die or become ill or lose loved ones or be financially devastated by the pandemic and our related public-health measures. There will be a huge mental-health toll. There is already an enormous impact for children. That's how the pandemic should be viewed and understood and written about.

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But screw it. Let's talk politics.

How is the Ontario government screwing up vaccines this badly?

I'm going to pre-emptively state that, yes, I know the vaccines are supplied by the federal government. And, yes, I further know that the federal government is struggling to deliver the goods and that, if the European Union were to impose export limits on vaccines manufactured in its territory, then Canada — and the federal Liberals — would be in very serious ... uh, stuff. There's lots of blame that should be directed Ottawa's way and will be, but this column is about the provincial part of this. And the brutal, undeniable reality is that we are not even maxing out what the feeble, inconsistent, struggling federal effort would allow.

Ontario needs more vaccines, desperately. And those can come only from Ottawa. Yes. Granted. Full stop.

But we aren't even effectively administering what vaccine Ottawa has provided. Vaccination rates have improved but are still insufficient, and on Thursday, the Ontario government acknowledged that it had blown the numbers it was keeping: total doses administered was accurate, but it had accidentally doubled the number of Ontarians who were fully vaccinated, having received both the necessary doses. The data have been corrected, but they were off, literally, by 100 per cent — tens of thousands of people.

This isn't a huge deal in and of itself. The people who needed the vaccine were still getting it. The failure was a data-entry one and a reporting one, not a failure to actually vaccinate the at-risk groups. But it's still more egg on the face of the provincial government, atop all the other challenges it's experienced. Vaccination is proving absurdly difficult to execute, especially given the fact that we've all spent almost a year waiting for the vaccines to be available. It's not like a pharmaceutical fairy, without warning, flew to Earth from Unicorn World to rain full syringes on us. We knew this was coming, we desperately watched for it to come, and when it came ... we weren't ready.

And this brings us back to the politics. If there's going to be a delay in the vaccine rollout, does it not serve the government's interest to be absolutely blameless? If Ontarians are going to be waiting for shots, isn't it better for Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet and health experts to be able to say, with utter sincerity and righteous honesty, look, we know. We're getting shots out just as fast as we receive them. But the federal supply just can't keep up. We agree with you! Go yell at that Trudeau feller!

Instead, we have a faltering, woefully inadequate federal-supply effort that ... is still somehow exceeding the province's ability to effectively administer.

The Ontario government has a problem. Actually, strike that — the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, which currently happens to be the majority party in the legislature, has a problem. Ontarians are dying while the province struggles to execute a part of our pandemic-response plan that is entirely within the provincial mandate. I am generally bullish on the provincial vaccination plan, if only because I assume that, even in a worst-case scenario, they’ll stumble onto the right plan eventually, having first tried everything else. Hopefully, by then, Ottawa will have firmed up its side of the equation and actually be delivering vaccines.

But right now, things seem to be heading in the wrong direction on both fronts at once: there is enormous downside risk — thanks to the Europeans — to the federal procurement plan, while the provincial distribution plan is stuck in low gear, struggling to figure out even basic records keeping.

Enough’s enough. Many of the problems Ontario has had to deal with during this pandemic are massively complicated and very difficult to address mid-emergency. But this isn’t one of them. This is a matter of organization, planning, and logistics … and we are supposed to be at least nominally competent at this. Getting shots into arms and properly recording the data are  problems that the province can solve — and must solve.  Once they are solved, the PCs will reap the benefit of being seen to be competent. They’ll get to be the good guys! And if they are able to show off their competence — against a backdrop of federal Liberal woes — hey. If you’re Ford, that’s sprinkles on top.

The reverse is also possible, though. The feds may get the procurement side sorted out before the province can get properly organized, meaning vaccines would end up overloading freezers instead of getting into willing arms. If that happens, Ford and his government will have only themselves to blame. And the voters will blame them, too.

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