Migrant farm worker COVID-19 vaccine pilot starts at Toronto airport

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TORONTO - An Ontario pilot project offering COVID-19 vaccines to migrant farm workers got underway on Saturday at Toronto's international airport.

Avi Yufest, spokesman for the Ontario agriculture ministry, told The Canadian Press the program “went well” as the government offered shots to more than 200 workers landing on an early-morning flight from Mexico.

Officials from the ministries of health and agriculture, health-care practitioners and representatives from the Mexican Consulate were also at Pearson International Airport to meet the group, offering doses of the Moderna vaccine after the workers cleared customs.

The vaccines were administered in a screened-off area after recipients took a mandatory COVID-19 test.

Yufest said there were “no major glitches” in the rollout, but that lessons learned from the first day would be introduced into a more permanent program that will offer shots to more workers arriving next week.

The government has said it plans to follow up with farms to administer the second dose through the local public health unit.

One such unit sounded a recent alarm about current vaccine supplies, raising the spectre of reduced clinic hours or even temporary shutdowns in the coming days if the situation doesn't improve.

York Region Chairman Wayne Emmerson outlined his concerns in a Friday letter to Health minister Christine Elliott, saying a scarcity of Moderna shots leaves the region unable to sustain its current pace of immunizations.

“Given this acute need for our clinics to continue vaccinating prioritized groups, we appeal both to you Minister, and to all our York Region MPPs, for your assistance to acquire any vaccines that can be directed to York Region before next week and keep our clinics fully operational,” the letter read.

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Elliott, did not comment specifically on the plea from York Region but described reliable vaccine supply as “the biggest challenge to Ontario's vaccine rollout.”

“We continue to be ready to administer doses - and expand the locations administering doses, including mass vaccination sites - as soon as we receive supply from the federal government,” she said in a statement.

Immunization efforts continued elsewhere, however, with some high-profile politicians getting in on the action.

Toronto Mayor John Tory received his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at a downtown pharmacy on Saturday morning.

“I'm completely confident taking it as it's been taken by millions of people around the world,” Tory said. “So, no nervousness whatsoever.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford received his first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Friday, saying he wanted to get the shot in front of media to help encourage people to get immunized and combat vaccine hesitancy.

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 3,813 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and 19 additional deaths associated with the virus.

Elliott said there were 973 new cases in Toronto, 669 in Peel Region, and 442 in York Region. Ottawa and Durham Region also logged high daily counts with 289 and 281, respectively.

Government figures showed 1,524 patients currently in Ontario hospitals due to COVID-19, with 585 in intensive care and 384 on a ventilator.

Those figures were released hours after the province issued a pair of emergency orders intended to address a major influx of COVID-19 patients requiring hospital care.

They include a directive allowing hospitals to transfer patients to other facilities without their consent, as well as one granting the province power to redeploy dozens of workers from home-care organizations and Ontario Health - the body that oversees the health system - to hospitals during a surge.

Hospitals will begin scaling back elective surgeries as of Monday as they try to keep pace with COVID-19-related demands.

Ontario said 104,783 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered in the province since Friday's report.

It's the fourth straight day more than 100,000 vaccines have been given out in the province.

A total of 3,044,949 vaccine doses have been administered in Ontario so far.

The province completed more than 61,400 tests since the last report.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 10, 2021.