TORONTO — COVID-19 vaccine booking portals and immunization centres in several Ontario regions were flooded with tens of thousands of calls and reservations Monday as they moved ahead with their plans to vaccinate the general public.
In York Region, where those aged 80 and older could start scheduling and receiving their shots in the morning, vaccination clinics were fully booked just two hours after they started taking appointments.
A spokesman said approximately 20,000 appointments were made across five locations in the region that includes the cities of Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan.
“At this time residents are urged to remain patient and will be notified as more appointment bookings become available,” Patrick Casey said in a statement.
Clinics were also set to offer shots to those 80 and older in Windsor-Essex County, and to those 85 and older at a hospital in Hamilton, where public health officials warned residents of possible long wait times amid high call volumes to its COVID-19 hotline.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph, which has also launched its own booking site to make appointments for adults 80 and older, noted its phone lines were at capacity Monday and encouraged people to register online.
The provincial government has said it aims to begin vaccinating Ontarians aged 80 and older starting the week of March 15, the same day it plans to launch its vaccine booking system that will offer a service desk and online portal.
A government source said a “soft launch” of the portal began Monday in six regions and eligible residents would be contacted and asked to participate in the pilot.
The government has said the vaccine rollout will look different in each of its 34 public health units.
When asked about the lack of province-wide cohesion, Health Minister Christine Elliott said that public health units know their regions best and that’s why they have been given responsibility to set the pace locally.
“Some of them are already vaccinating the over-80-year-old people that are living within their regions,” Elliott said Monday. “I think that’s something that we should be celebrating not denigrating.”
Lockdowns still in effect across Ontario
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said he’s happy some public health units are offering shots already, but argued it could cause issues later when health units that have already started making appointments on their own systems have to switch over to the provincial one.
“This could potentially be a big problem as we’re trying to roll out vaccines,” he told reporters.
In Toronto, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service confirmed that approximately 2,250 members would receive vaccines starting Monday. Connie Osborne said the shots will go to front-line officers who respond to emergency calls that may require medical assistance.
Monday also saw two Ontario regions – Thunder Bay and Simcoe Muskoka – return to lockdowns as a result of rising COVID-19 cases.
Meanwhile, restrictions on businesses and gatherings were to loosen in seven other health units: Niagara Region, Chatham-Kent; Middlesex-London; Southwestern; Haldimand-Norfolk; Huron Perth; and Grey Bruce.
The mayor of Barrie, Ont., which is in Simcoe Muskoka, pushed back against the renewed restrictions on small businesses that took effect Monday.
Watch: Vaughan, Ont. hospital to help address capacity issues. Story continues below.
Jeff Lehman wrote to Premier Doug Ford and Simcoe Muskoka’s top doctor requesting a revision of public health rules that apply under the province’s “lockdown” designation. He argued small businesses like personal care services and gyms should be allowed to open with restrictions.
Other municipal officials raised similar concerns about pressure on small businesses during a public meeting with the health unit on Monday.
The region’s top doctor, Dr. Charles Gardner, said he’s heard concerns about the strict measures from people in areas with fewer cases. He said he’ll be in touch with the province’s chief medical officer about whether a full lockdown is required for the region.
In Thunder Bay, which entered a lockdown after reporting more COVID-19 cases in February than all of 2020, a local hospital reported it was expanding its COVID-19 and intensive care units to meet the needs of the community.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the Public Health Agency of Canada was reviewing a funding application for the city’s isolation site after Thunder Bay’s mayor called for assistance to keep it running. Cole Davidson said that application would be fully processed “in the coming days.”
Ontario reported 1,023 new cases of COVID-19 and six more deaths from the virus on Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2021.