TORONTO — Long-term care residents in Ontario will be getting the Moderna vaccine once it receives approval from federal regulators, the head of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution task force said Tuesday.
Retired Gen. Rick Hillier said the shot will be key to protecting nursing homes residents because it does not have the strict storage and transportation requirements of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot – the only COVID-10 vaccine approved so far in Canada.
“We have made a decision that to have to try and move residents from those long-term care homes to the vaccination site would increase the risk so dramatically that we would not want to do it,” Hillier said. “The Moderna vaccine is going to be our first go-to vaccine to allow us to go into the long-term care homes.”
Hillier made the announcement hours after the province reported a record 2,275 new cases of COVID-19 and 20 new deaths.
Outbreaks in long-term care homes in Ontario have killed 2,491 residents and eight workers since the start of the pandemic.
Ontario has established 19 vaccination sites to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, two of which began operating in Toronto and Ottawa this week.
The province has said health-care workers, long-term care residents, and their caregivers will be among the first to receive the vaccine.
Adults in Indigenous communities, residents of retirement homes, and recipients of chronic home health-care will also be priority groups.
Ontario will also be prioritizing the distribution of the vaccine in regions with the highest rates of COVID-19.
Hillier said by reducing the chance of workers getting the virus, it will also greatly limit the possibility of it coming into homes.
He lauded the long-term care home workers who were the first to get the shot in Ontario on Monday for their service to the province.
“They’ve been on the front lines of the war against COVID-19,” he said. “They’ve worked in frightening, dangerous circumstances … and they did it because the people they worked with depended upon them.”
The federal government announced Tuesday that Canada has signed a contract to receive up to 168,000 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine before the end of December.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said deliveries could begin within 48 hours of it getting the green light from Health Canada.
Ontario has said it expects to receive between 30,000 and 85,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine after it is approved by the federal regulator.
Dr. Supriya Sharma, chief medical adviser at Health Canada, said there are still some outstanding manufacturing documents needed from Moderna before authorities can approve its vaccine.
Overall, some four million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and two million doses of Moderna’s are expected by the end of March, said deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo.
Premier Doug Ford said Ontario’s vaccine rollout will continue this week in Toronto and Ottawa where hundreds of workers will receive the first of the two required doses of the Pfizer shot.
“The good news is, folks, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, there’s hope for everyone out there now,” he said. “Our challenge is to get more vaccines, which they’re coming, and to get them distributed across the province and get them into people’s arms as soon as possible.”
The government has said, however, that the vaccine isn’t expected to be more broadly available to the general public until April.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is consulting with Ontario’s chief medical officer of health to see if it should impose new pandemic restrictions in the coming weeks.
Toronto, Peel and York regions and Windsor-Essex are currently in lockdown as case counts have grown in recent weeks.
Elliott did not provide further details on what those possible restrictions could be.
“We will be speaking with Dr. Williams … to see what other solutions we might be able to bring forward that are going to help us get these numbers down so that we don’t have that level of community transmission,” she said Tuesday.
NDP legislator Marit Stiles said the Ford government does not have a plan to deal with the surging spread of COVID-19 across the province.
“What I heard today from the premier in that press conference was a lot of talk about the vaccine and how the light is there at the end of the tunnel, but not much in terms of what concrete actions are happening right now to protect our most vulnerable people,” she said.