Ontario’s vaccine rollout will go better than you think

OPINION: Don’t let the government’s communications missteps fool you — the province’s vaccine rollout is actually in pretty good shape
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 26, 2021
Retired general Rick Hillier, chair of the COVID-19 vaccine-distribution task force, responds to a question at Queen's Park on December 11, 2020. (Tijana Martin/CP)

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I don’t say this a lot, but poor Doug Ford. The premier of Ontario was challenged Wednesday on his government’s vaccines rollout: Why are Ontarians still waiting while other provinces, like Quebec and Alberta, are starting to open their campaigns to the oldest members of the general public? The premier reached for some numbers to buttress his record and instead put his hands on irrelevancies: Ontario has immunized more people than any other province (we’re the biggest province; anything else would be a catastrophic failure), and Quebec hasn’t administered so much as a single second dose for its population (that’s a policy choice, not a failure).

The shame of it is there’s a pretty straightforward number, easily at hand, that actually bolsters the government’s case here: 94 per cent. That’s the portion of vaccines Ontario has received that had been put into people’s arms as of 8 p.m. Thursday — 643,765 of the 683,255 doses received from the feds. That’s not precisely the best in the country; Alberta has done slightly better as of this morning, and Saskatchewan is, improbably, reporting that 110 per cent of its doses have been administered. British Columbia is reporting 78 per cent. Quebec, 76. These numbers may not all be strictly comparable in an apples-to-apples sense, but they should be broadly correct. Ontario is getting doses into willing humans just about as quickly as any other province in Canada and very likely faster than some.

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That doesn’t mean there won’t be mistakes — indeed, there have already been errors, and I expect there will be more — but they will likely be small relative to Ontario’s ability to do the most basic part of the job: receiving and distributing and administering these vaccines.

What, then, explains provinces like Quebec and Alberta being farther ahead of Ontario and opening up their online registrations this week? I won’t pretend to know all the details of the vaccine drive (I’m sorry, there’s just too much going on). I did, though, speak to some experts for this column, and one important divergence in Ontario’s vaccine plan is a greater emphasis on vaccinating health-care workers. That was a choice — as much a choice as Quebec’s emphasis on first-shots-first — and there are unquestionably arguments against it. At the margin, it has taken Ontario longer to start vaccinating people in some vulnerable groups, but it wasn’t a stupid or malicious choice. If the province is hit by a really devastating third wave, it might help preserve hospital capacity.

It's regrettable that literally everything about Canada’s performance in the pandemic is now being coded exclusively as helpful to either Liberal/federal or Conservative/provincial talking points, because even mentioning the shortage of vaccines is seen as conceding a Tory political point. But the unanticipated shortage earlier this year was a real thing that happened, and, among other things, it shone a spotlight on hard choices the government had made about who was first in line for vaccines. Those choices might be bad, but given where Ontario and Canada are broadly in the pandemic right now, it’s not obvious to me what the “good choices” would have been.

None of that, however, excuses the confusion the government has created with some of its missteps, including Rick Hillier’s deeply unhelpful comments at Queen’s Park on Wednesday. Hillier announced several dates for when people in various age groups will receive vaccinations — as late as June 1, for example, for people in the 65-70 age bracket — and people got variously angry or terrified (as if we didn’t have enough ambient terror right now) that their parents or grandparents could die before getting their spot in the queue.

The good news is that the timelines Hillier announced were already obsolete by Friday morning: Health Canada has announced its approval of the vaccine developed by Astra Zeneca, adding a third vaccine to our arsenal and some non-trivial number of vaccines to our supply in the not too distant future. A vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson is also likely to approved soon, though its availability is still uncertain. And the already-approved supplies of Moderna and Pfizer could also see production accelerated. It is, frankly, a mystery to me why Hillier decided to announce those dates without some kind of caveat that they were likely to be “no later than” or close to it.

“Those dates represent a worst-worst-worst case scenario that is extremely unlikely,” says U of T’s Isaac Bogoch, a member of the vaccine task force. “And it’s very likely that, due to the pace of vaccine delivery, the prioritization of those over the age of 60, and other vaccines becoming available in Canada, those dates will very, very, very, likely be significantly be sped up.”

For good measure, Minister of Health Christine Elliott said much the same to reporters at Queen’s Park on Thursday.

At the risk of being repetitive: as much as people have decided that even saying the words “vaccine supply” out loud in English means you’re a slavish Ford acolyte, it is true now and it will remain true that the single biggest constraint on vaccination in Ontario is the availability of supply. As more supply is procured by the federal government, the timelines for vaccination will move up in the calendar.

Could the wheels still come entirely off the bus at some point? Yes, in theory. But Ontario is also moving into a phase of the vaccination drive in which more and more is going to be done by public-health units, and this is good news: the PHUs excel at this kind of work — mass-vaccination campaigns are literally one of the reasons they exist, and several of them have already made their plans public — and the smart thing is to let them do their work, support them in doing it, and otherwise get out of the way. If Queen’s Park were proposing to lead this effort directly, I’d be more scared, not less.

(Don’t take my word for it: Kieran Moore, medical officer of health for Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington and a member of the vaccine task force, told TVO.org that, while it’s going to be tough, “we can accomplish that mission” while attending to the other concerns of the pandemic.)

There are still real frustrations about the province’s approach, and it does seem as if the government has allowed some decisions to take too long — that is, perhaps, why we’re seeing several PHUs simply announce their own pre-registrations while we wait for the province’s online and phone-based systems to get up and running. And we may yet see more frustrations boil over in hospitals and elsewhere.

I don’t want to minimize the real frustrations people have, but I do think it’s important to put them in context, if only to try to settle the public’s reasonable anxieties about where the province stands right now. Things actually are working reasonably well in Ontario, arguably better than in most provinces and definitely not much worse. It’s bizarre and surprising that the government has managed to step all over some basically positive facts with poor communications, but then 2021 undoubtedly has more surprises in store for us.

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