People in the Greater Toronto Area should expect a range of different experiences when the province’s mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign begins, depending largely on which city they call home.
Each of Ontario’s 34 public health units is responsible for the distribution of vaccines and the operation of immunization clinics when large scale inoculations are scheduled to begin in March.
“There are many different ways this is going to be rolled out,” said Minister of Health Christine Elliott at Queen’s Park earlier this week.
“This is going to be specific and clear to the people and it is going to be produced within a very short time.”
Highly detailed vaccination plans have not yet been finalized by local public health units in the GTA, but there are indications that approaches will differ from region to region.
Those variations could include where people receive vaccines and how they book their appointments.
“We can definitely say that, in a positive way, you will probably see variation between health units,” said Katarina Garpenfeldt, the chief of COVID-19 vaccine operations with York Region Public Health.
Who’s responsible for what?
Canada’s vaccine distribution system spells out distinct responsibilities for each level of government.
Ottawa, for example, is responsible for approving and procuring vaccines, while Ontario determines eligibility and a priority list for residents.
The provincial government announced new details about that plan on Wednesday, which you can read about below:
While the broad strokes of the distribution plan have already been determined by the province’s immunization task force, the fine details and logistics of vaccine distribution are being handled by local public health units.
Those public health units will ultimately determine many elements of the vaccination experience, such as who administers the vaccine, where it is administered and when.
Some of their biggest logistical challenges are how to ensure physical distancing at vaccination sites, how to reduce lineups and the development of a scheduling system. Public health units are also expected to deliver vaccines on-location in certain situations, such as in areas with large proportions of seniors or other vulnerable residents.
“We’re working with very many pieces moving, logistically,” Garpenfeldt said.
Garpenfeldt and other planners involved in that work describe it as an enormous task, but one that is best-suited for local experts.
Localized plans the best approach, planners say
“I think it makes sense that your plan is local,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health.
“Because our circumstances in Toronto are very different from northern Ontario, and how we plan and implement will be very different.”
While variations between immunization plans are expected to be most pronounced when comparing urban to rural areas, there are likely to be differences even within the GTA.
York Region, for example, plans to operate a drive-thru immunization clinic at Canada’s Wonderland, which is designed to serve residents in suburban areas more likely to own a car.
There do not appear to be plans to offer drive-thru immunization for Toronto residents. The city instead plans to open nine clinics, most of which are accessible via public transit.
Like its neighbours, Peel Region is also in the process of finalizing an immunization plan specific to the residents and unique challenges in its communities. Health-care planners said specific details are not yet available.
“Depending on what they tell us, we work to adjust communications and operations to meet their needs,” said a spokesperson for Peel Public Health. “This might look different in Peel than it does in other regions.”
The provincial government and local public health units have not yet provided exact dates about when residents can expect more detailed information, though Ontario did say on Wednesday that its online booking portal will go live on March 15.
“We don’t have all of those answers,” said Dubey about Toronto residents’ pressing vaccine-related questions.
“Once we know, we will share it.”