Ontario’s task force overseeing the massive effort to vaccinate residents against COVID-19 held its first meeting Friday to nail down specifics in hopes of providing more details to a hungry public next week.
The inaugural session came a day after the federal government said the Pfizer vaccine could be approved within 10 days and amid criticism Premier Doug Ford’s government is “scrambling” to pull a plan together at the last minute.
Headed by retired Canadian Armed Forces general Rick Hillier, the task force includes several doctors, a bioethicist, former Toronto police chief Mark Saunders, Ontario Regional Chief RoseAnne Archibald of Taykwa Tagamou Nation and chief executive Linda Hasenfratz of auto parts giant Linamar.
Ford took the unusual step of cancelling his daily news conference to attend the meeting with the nine members calling in by telephone as Ontario reported 1,780 new cases of COVID-19 and another 25 deaths, including 12 in nursing homes.
“It will be quite a few months,” Hillier said of the vaccine effort. He recently pledged to have a plan finalized by Dec. 31 following months of groundwork from civil servants.
Despite the continuing high levels of new cases, the province did not move any more regions into lockdown with Toronto and Peel, and was urged by its commission investigating the deadly impact of the pandemic in nursing homes to boost inspections to reduce infections.
In following a 2015 recommendation from Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk to “prioritize” inspections based on complaints and critical incidents, the province moved to “risk-based” inspection to clear a backlog, the commission noted in a second set of interim recommendations.
But that change left “an incomplete picture of the state of infection prevention and control and emergency preparedness. This is a key gap,” said the commission chaired by Frank Marrocco, associate chief justice of Ontario Superior Court.
“By their nature, a complaint about day-to-day issues in a home is very unlikely to identify problems with equipment and processes that would be used in an emergency.”
Only 27 of Ontario’s more than 600 nursing homes were given “resident quality inspections” in 2019, down from 329 the previous year, and there were “no indications” such inspections were initiated by the Ministry of Long-Term Care once COVID outbreaks began, the commission said.
Only 11 nursing homes were given proactive inspections between March 1 and Oct. 15.
Friday’s vaccine task force meeting focused on priority populations for receiving the shots — widely expected to begin with front-line health-care workers and nursing-home residents.
Ford said it is difficult to plan when it’s not known when vaccines are coming and in what quantities from the federal government.
“We’re planning for the minimum and the maximum and we’ll be ready,” said Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.
Critics have questioned why it has taken so long for Ontario to appoint a task force to refine the plan given that it’s been clear for weeks that vaccines were expected to get approvals by the end of the year.
“Finding out the task force is just meeting for the very first time today is going to make folks pretty anxious,” said New Democratic Party deputy leader Sara Singh, who accused the government of “scrambling.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Hillier conducted a “tabletop exercise” Friday on distributing the first 100,000 doses. A similar one will be held Monday in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
One member of the task force said Indigenous communities have been harder hit in the second wave and should be a “high priority” because of their remote communities and limited access to medical care.
“Going to work like a dog with this team to facilitate data-driven, efficient and equitable vaccine rollout in Ontario,” added Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at University Health Network and frequent media commentator on the pandemic.
Other members of the task force are Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner and co-ordinator of COVID-19 outbreak response, Dr. Homer Tien, a trauma surgeon who is chief executive of the Ornge air ambulance service, Western University bioethicist Maxwell Smith, Dr. Regis Vaillancourt, director of pharmacy at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and Angela Mondou, president of Technation, a computer company.
Hiller is being paid $20,000 a month while task force members who are not members of the Ontario Public Service get a per diem of $398.
While chief medical officer Dr. David Williams had warned Thursday that “a number” of Ontario regions would be facing more COVID-19 restrictions to stem the spread of the virus, Ford’s cabinet accepted his recommendation that only three of Ontario’s 34 health units should see increased public health measures.
York Region, which had been encouraging the province not to tip it into lockdown, stays one step below in the red or “control” zone of restrictions.
Medical officer of health Dr. Karim Kurji said York will continue with a strict inspection regime of businesses through the holiday shopping season but acknowledged the region’s three hospitals are finding the situation more “challenging” because they are taking overflow patients from Toronto and Peel Region.
“They have been managing with some difficulty,” Kurji said.
The only regions facing increased restrictions are Middlesex-London and Thunder Bay, both moving up one notch in the five-tier, colour-coded framework to the orange or middle level, and Haliburton-Kawartha-Pine Ridge, which goes from the bottom green level to the second or yellow zone.
Those changes take effect Monday.