TORONTO — More family doctors will be involved in Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout as the province works to reach those who haven’t had a shot and eyes eventually winding down its mass immunization sites.
To support vaccine outreach, the province will also start providing public health units with sociodemographic data on residents who’ve already had a jab.
The new focus was outlined Thursday as officials announced that half of adults in the province have been fully vaccinated against the virus and 78 per cent have one dose.
“We are not stopping there. We want to ensure that even more Ontarians can benefit from the protection of a two-dose summer,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said.
The province is working with stakeholders to address vaccination barriers, with outreach strategies including town halls in multiple languages and targeted mobile clinics, Elliott said.
About 700 primary care settings have been involved in the vaccine rollout so far and officials said Thursday that more are joining the effort, though a target total number and timeline for their involvement hadn’t been set.
Primary care providers are also being given data on patients who have and haven’t been vaccinated to help with outreach.
Elliott said family doctor involvement will be essential as mass clinics hosted by hospitals and at large venues like stadiums and recreation centres wind down due to dwindling demand and the need to resume their regular uses.
“While physicians have been important throughout in the vaccination program, both in terms of their offices and in the mass vaccination clinics, they will continue to be even more important as we reach a steady state going forward,” Elliott said.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the province envisions family doctor, public health unit and pharmacy involvement in COVID-19 vaccinations will eventually resemble their role in other vaccination efforts, like those seen for flu shots.
“When you think of other vaccines that are annually administered in Ontario, those are the three primary pathways, and we’ll move to that as we find our need for the mass vaccination clinics decreases,” she said.
Jones anticipated family doctors would also play a significant role in vaccinating children under age 12 if and when Canada approves use of COVID-19 vaccines for them.
The Ontario Medical Association said it would work with the government to ensure family doctors and pediatricians can be involved “as much as possible” in the vaccine rollout.
“We are also focusing on advocating for more mRNA vaccines to be administered from doctors’ offices, including giving regular booster shots similar to the flu shot,” the representing Ontario doctors said in a Thursday statement, adding that discussions were ongoing with details to come.
Sociodemographic data that’s been voluntarily collected at vaccine clinics will also start being shared with public health units this Friday, officials said, to help target outreach for vaccinations.
Data covers race, ethnic origin, language, household income and household size and officials say it can’t be used for purposes other than the vaccine rollout.
Ontario is also working to increase vaccine coverage in designated hot spots for the more transmissible Delta variant, which has caused virus resurgences and reopening setbacks in some Ontario regions.
The health unit covering Grey Bruce has been named a hot spot for the variant, joining the 10 previously identified regions of Durham, Halton, Hamilton, Peel, Porcupine, Simcoe-Muskoka, Toronto, Waterloo, Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph and York.
Waterloo Region, which delayed rolling back public health restrictions with the rest of the province last week due to a variant-driven infection spike, announced Thursday it would proceed with reopening next Monday.
The health unit said vaccination rates have rapidly increased since the region was designated as a hot spot last month, with now nearly 80 per cent first-dose coverage and 45 per cent second-dose coverage.
It said those improvements along with other positive virus trends will allow for a safe move into Step 2 of the province’s reopening plan, which allows hair salons and similar services to reopen along with more outdoor activities.
“Our community has made a remarkable effort to protect each other,” said Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the region’s top doctor.
“With Delta still prevalent in our region, it remains very important, for each and every one of us, to continue practicing public health measures such as masking and distancing and to continue getting vaccinated. We cannot let up now.”
Ontario reported 210 COVID-19 cases on Thursday and four more deaths from the virus.