Ontario plans to soon start offering fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccines to residents aged 60 and older, the province’s health minister said Tuesday as she maintained that the province is equipped to handle rising cases and hospitalizations.
Christine Elliott said a plan would be announced on Wednesday for expanding eligibility for second booster shots.
“Our medical advisers have recommended … that we go to 60 to provide an added level of protection to the residents of Ontario,” she said at the provincial legislature.
“We will have further details about the particulars available tomorrow, but 60 is going to be at the age at which people can receive (fourth shots).”
Fourth doses in Ontario are already available to long-term care and retirement home residents as well as those who are immunocompromised.
Ontario’s plan to open fourth-dose access to people aged 60 and older follows new advice from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization. On Tuesday, the committee said provinces and territories should start preparing plans to roll out fourth shots in the coming weeks, prioritizing those 80 and older and residents in long-term care.
The developments on Ontario’s vaccination plans come as the province has been seeing rising COVID-19 hospitalizations.
There were 1,091 people in hospital with the virus Tuesday, nearly 40 per cent higher than a week earlier. That hospitalization figure surpassed projections from the province’s group of expert pandemic advisers, who predicted last month that hospitalizations could be around half that number by the beginning of April.
Ontario ended mask mandates in most public spaces two weeks ago, with the exception of public transit and health-care settings such as hospitals and long-term care homes.
Premier Doug Ford on Monday called the rise in cases “a little spike” that the province anticipated, and Elliott repeated that messaging on Tuesday.
“It’s not unanticipated that this would happen. This is something that when you’re opening up the province to the degree that we have, and with the transmissibility of this virus, that we expected to see the numbers increase,” Elliott said.
Like Ford, she pointed to the addition of 3,100 new hospital beds, the province’s highly vaccinated population and access to antiviral drugs that she said would help the province fight off the latest wave of cases.
“We have the measures that we need to deal with this,” she said.
Elliott also repeated that the province isn’t currently planning to bring back its broad mask mandate, saying that Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer, hasn’t recommended it.
Moore outlined the province’s plans to lift public health measures a month ago. Since then, he hasn’t been available for media briefings or regular interviews to discuss the pandemic. Elliott said Tuesday that Moore has chosen to do less frequent media appearances about COVID-19 because he determined they aren’t necessary at this point.
“If he feels that the situation changes, and he wants to come back and do more frequent interviews and meetings, then he’s certainly free to do so,” she said.
Earlier Tuesday, Elliott said the province planned to make it easier to access an antiviral COVID-19 drug.
Immunocompromised adults and some COVID-19 patients who are unvaccinated are eligible to receive Paxlovid in Ontario, including unvaccinated people 60 and older, and unvaccinated people aged 50 and older who are Indigenous or have at least one risk factor for the disease.
But concerns have been raised about difficulty accessing the drug, which is only effective if treatment starts within five days of symptom onset.
Elliott said Paxlovid was initially distributed through 26 sites, and now that supply has increased, the province intends to bring more sites into the rollout such as pharmacies and other locations.
She said the province is also planning to expand its education program about the drug so individuals may learn that they are eligible.
The Opposition NDP said the drug should be more accessible to people who need it as the virus circulates more widely, on top of other measures to manage the latest wave, like expanding access to tests.
Deputy NDP Leader Sara Singh said the government and Moore should be doing more to manage the spike.
“We need to see clear direction, we need a proactive response,” Singh said. “There are so many measures that this government should be implementing right now to help stop the spread of COVID-19 our communities that they simply are just failing to do.”
Earlier in the week, Ontario’s largest school board said it would resume updating entire school communities about COVID-19 cases. The Toronto District School Board said on Monday it would provide letters with information about impacted classes until the end of the school year to give a more “comprehensive picture.”