Ontario public health officials say they believe the province will be able to immunize 90 percent of its population fully against COVID-19 by focusing efforts on those who are vaccine-hesitant and bringing doses directly to people.
Dr. Kieran Moore, chief medical officer of health for Ontario, says the province has an “aspirational goal” of vaccinating 90 percent of eligible Ontarians as part of what the province calls its “Last Mile Strategy.” If that goal was reached, he said Ontario could be free of pandemic waves in six to eight months, he said.
“When you get immunized, it is an act of community,” Dr. Moore told reporters this week.
Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health, and Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health for Peel Region, say their public health units are making efforts to reach those who have not yet had the first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine in a bid to slow the fourth wave of the pandemic. The delta variant is now the dominant strain in Ontario.
Dr. Dubey said Toronto Public Health (TPH) is using a hyperlocal strategy that involves mobile clinics as well as community ambassadors who talk to people about vaccinations, encourage them to go to clinics and gather information on why people are not getting vaccinated. TPH is also working with schools and school boards to reach young people, she said.
In addition, TPH is hoping that vaccination policies at workplaces, businesses, post-secondary institutions and entertainment events will finally prompt people to get both shots.
Dr. Dubey said only three to five percent of people absolutely refuse to get vaccinated. TPH is hoping all of its efforts will sway people who are hesitant but not “refusers.” For some, access is still an issue, she added.
“These are people who are classically what we call sitting on the fence, have chosen right now not to be vaccinated, but are still willing to hear information and make up their mind. It’s really those vaccine-hesitant individuals that we’re trying to target,” she said.
“Many people may have decided: ‘I will just wait and see how this plays out.’ But now, you can provide them with more of that information and experience on why the vaccines are safe.”
Dr. Dubey said she thinks the province’s new vaccination goal will be reached. “I think we can plan to achieve more than 90 percent,” she said.
Dr. Loh said he is tracking the rise of COVID-19 cases in local hospitals and patients who are seen there have not typically received two doses of vaccine. He added that 73 percent of eligible Peel Region residents are fully vaccinated.
“The delta virus is moving quickly,” Dr. Loh said.
Vaccinations limit spread, hospitalization and death, he added. A total of 250,000 Peel Region residents have not received their first shot, 152,000 have not received their second shot and 207,000 under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination.
Dr. Loh called on the province to implement a vaccine certificate program.
“In the short term, vaccine certificates can help to reduce transmission and limit risk for those who are unvaccinated in settings where precautions cannot be consistently maintained,” Dr. Loh said.
Peel Public Health urged all employers in Peel Region on Wednesday to review and update their COVID-19 workplace safety plans, which are required under the Reopening Ontario Act, to do the following:
- Consider promoting COVID-19 vaccination to workers.
- Assess whether workplace risks could be reduced by implementing a proof-of-vaccination policy for staff.
“Vaccination is currently our best defence against severe illness or death from COVID-19 and may also support short and long-term business continuity and a safer workplace environment,” Loh said.
Dr. Moore, for his part, said he is convinced that when Ontario reaches a vaccination rate of above 90 percent, that level of immunity will limit community spread and will benefit children, those who cannot be vaccinated and those who are immune-suppressed, including people undergoing chemotherapy.
The rate will also lead to lower numbers of hospitalizations and decreased use of intensive care units, he said.
“Our strategy in Ontario, if we want to get back to a new normal, is to build the highest level of protection. It will protect all of us,” he said.
“It will reduce the overall risk, and instead of having waves we’re going to have to tolerate, we’ll have small outbreaks that we’ll learn to live with that will have a smaller impact on the healthcare system and allow us to start to pull away some of the public health measures … That could happen as early as six to eight months from now,” he continued.
Dr. Moore said 82.3 percent of eligible Ontarians, aged 12 and older, have received the first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 75 percent have received a second shot.
In a news release on Tuesday, the Ontario government said it is embarking on its “Last Mile Strategy” and that means it is continuing to make vaccines readily available, especially in areas where there are lower vaccination rates.
The province will also call people who have not yet booked their second shot. Areas with low immunization rates are identified by postal codes.
More than 110,000 second-dose appointments have been booked or rebooked because of the calls, the government said.
Ontario on ‘the last mile of a very long marathon,’ official says
As part of the strategy, the province and public health units are focusing on what they call smaller, community-based and easy-to-access settings for vaccinations. That includes mobile clinics and community pop-ups, dedicated clinic days for families with people with disabilities and town hall meetings in several languages.
The government added that a key component of its strategy is to bring vaccines directly to people. That includes Ontario’s GO-VAXX bus clinic, which has administered 1,100 vaccine doses, 42 percent of which were first doses.
Ontario is on the “last mile of a very long marathon,” Moore told reporters.
As for the vaccine-hesitant, he said: “We know we have to answer questions for these individuals. It’s going to take longer. We want them to build their confidence in immunization. The early adopters have all been immunized.”
The remaining holdouts will be the most difficult to reach, he added.
“But we’ll be patient with them and build incentives for them and policies around them to best protect the vulnerable in our communities.”
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