When Ottawa gets enough vaccines, will Ontario be ready?

OPINION: Justin Trudeau is pledging that all Canadians who want a vaccine will be able to get one by September. Ontario needs to start planning and practising now
By Matt Gurney - Published on Feb 16, 2021
Premier Doug Ford (right) and Trillium Health Partners Hospital CEO Michelle E. DiEmanuele with the Moderna vaccine in Mississauga on December 30, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Watching the Toronto Maple Leafs last night, as they suffered an absolutely epic collapse against the bottom-ranked Ottawa Senators — this is technically Ontario content, folks — brought to mind two important lessons in life. Practice makes perfect, and always be prepared for bumps along the way.

The Leafs are the best team in the league (at least in terms of point standings). The Senators are the worst team in the league. Toronto was up 5-1 when Ottawa's comeback began; they crushed a shell-shocked and confused Leafs lineup by scoring five straight unanswered goals, taking the game 6-5 in overtime. It was a complete humiliation that brought to mind ... well, some other game against some other team. Sorry, I'm not ready to talk about that yet. But it also brought to mind the fact that even good teams can screw up. But you keep playing anyway.

Late last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tripled or quadrupled down (I've lost track) on his government's prior pledge that all Canadians who want a vaccine will be able to get one by September of this year. Ottawa has struggled with vaccine procurement, and Canadians are obviously frustrated and concerned about the slow pace. (Polling is starting to detect this, which indicates trouble for the federal Liberals.) But if deliveries of Moderna and Pfizer resume and accelerate, as we've been promised, and if Health Canada approves any or all of the other three vaccine candidates under consideration, we might soon find ourselves receiving a lot of vaccine, perhaps all at once. This would be a nice problem to have. But unless we get our logistics figured out, it would indeed still be a problem.

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A few weeks ago, here at TVO.org, I unburdened myself by pouring out genuine anger and frustration with Ontario's languid pace of vaccination and with its challenges tracking what doses had been administered. Having gotten that out of my system, I don't feel obligated to repeat it all here, but suffice it to say, while Ottawa has certainly been struggling to get the provinces badly needed vaccines, the provinces — Ontario, mainly, for our purposes here — haven't been organized enough to make good use of what they did have.

We live in an intensely partisan era when people like to put all the blame on someone else, and even so much nuance as "the feds and Ontario are both struggling" is for a great many tantamount to pledging your undying devotion to either Trudeau or Ford. But in the real world, there's nothing incompatible about that statement: Ottawa is objectively struggling to get vaccine to Canada, and the provinces — especially Ontario — have objectively struggled to distribute even what they had in an effective, organized manner.

It's really that simple. It would be nice to live in a world where only one screw-up was possible at a time, but alas, we live in this one, where there is no upper bound to how many things we can collectively make a hash of simultaneously. If your partisanship blinds you to this fact — well, look around at the state of things and feel shame for bringing us here.

But as I write this, still stewing over last night’s collapse — we should rehire Mike Babcock just to fire him again — it occurs to me that a good team shakes a failure off, learns from it, and comes back ready to play again. This is Ontario’s moment to do exactly that.

Trudeau is confident we’ll have enough vaccine by September. I’m not convinced, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that’s true. What does Ontario need to do, right now, to be ready for it? If we had a million doses tomorrow, do we know which Ontarians would get them? Where to find them? How to notify them? Do we have vaccination centres chosen? Do the sites have parking? Are we going to have school buses dropping off kids just as thousands of cars descend on the community centre next door once the clinic opens? Are the parking lots ploughed?

Have we spoken with pharmacies? Is the military involved? Do we have the IT infrastructure in place to track who has (and has not) received their doses? Are we simulating vaccination sites? Do we have enough trained personnel to give all the injections? If not, have we begun the effort to train more people or recall retirees to service? Do we have sufficient ultra-cool freezers deployed to the right places? Syringes? A way to dispose of the biohazard posed by the thousands of used syringes we’ll be generating each day at each site? Do we have enough tents, folding tables, chairs? Enough PPE for staff?

The answer to most of the questions is probably “no, not yet.” That’s okay. We don’t need to be ready tomorrow. But we need to begin the process of getting ready tomorrow — hell, we need to begin today. We are seeing some signs of progress. The province has announced the next phase of vaccination priorities and is working to develop a booking system for future phases. Good! What’s next? What else are we working on?

One of the more awkward parts of getting married — an otherwise great experience! — was our wedding rehearsal. I felt vaguely ridiculous marching through the private room of a restaurant while my friends marched ahead of or behind me. But you know what? It helped. It gave us a sense of timing and location. Ontario needs to begin rehearsing mass vaccination now, and that includes simulating failure. Freezers are going to break. Traffic jams will form at drive-thru sites. You’ll have power outages and rowdy crowds, and computers will fritz at the worst possible moment. People will try to steal vaccine or fraudulently cut to the head of the line.

These are just the challenges that occur to me. I’m sure experts could rattle off a hundred more. But that’s okay! Life is always about the gritty details. Any plan will have flaws, and even good plans can be derailed. So practise. Now. Before we have perishable vaccines sitting in real-life freezers. Run tabletop exercises and real-world simulations of a vaccination clinic. Share the results widely. Remember the words of General (later President) Eisenhower, who said that “plans are useless, but planning is everything.”

Exactly. Plan now. Then practise. Give people so much comfort in what they’re supposed to be doing if all goes well that they’ll have the confidence and competence to improvise on the fly when things go badly. Because they will. But right now, we have the time to be ready for it. We can use this time well.

Go Leafs go. Sigh.

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