Ontario health officials say they expect to begin mass delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine to select groups of people in April as part of the second distribution phase of their vaccination plan.

The province released new deadlines and criteria for the COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday.

According to officials, the government expects to move into the second phase of their vaccination plan by mid-April, allowing older adults and members of vulnerable populations outside of congregate settings to receive their shots.

The government first started administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the end of December, focusing on four target groups of people: residents, essential caregivers and staff of congregate setting for seniors, health-care workers, adults in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit populations, and adult recipients of chronic home health care.

Those within these groups are being prioritized based on a “risk matrix,” the government said, which weighs risk of exposure by patient population and health-care setting. It also takes into account the position a worker holds and whether there is enough resources should that person fall ill.

There could be overlap between Phase 1 and Phase 2, officials say, depending on the number of vaccines available.

Who will be vaccinated under Phase 2?

Officials listed five groups who will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 2 of their distribution plan.

Those who will be able to get the vaccine include:

  • Seniors over the age of 80. Officials say that they will decrease the age eligibility marker by five years throughout Phase 2
  • Those living and working in other high-risk congregate settings
  • Essential workers, beginning with front-line essential workers
  • Individuals with high-risk chronic conditions and their caregivers
  • Other populations and communities “facing barriers related to the determinants of health” who are at a greater COVID-19 risk. This can include racialized communities.

Officials provided a few examples of essential workers, including first responders, teachers, and members of the food and construction industry, but said that work still needs to be done to sub-prioritize this category.

The government anticipates Phase 3 to begin in August. Under this phase, “remaining eligible Ontarians” will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Speaking at a news conference, retired General Rick Hillier, who is leading the COVID-19 distribution task force, said that he wants to “give an incredible program of mass vaccination center support to our essential workers.”

“Whether those are first responders like our incredible police and fire, and all the way through to the farm workers who ensure our supply of food, and many others. We're delineating how we will do those things but we believe given the millions of vaccines that are due to arrive in April, May and June,” he said.

Hillier went on to say that officials expect to receive about 15 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine during that three-month in that time frame.

More than 8,000 Ontarians fully immunized

Officials say more than 144,000 shots have been administered so far, with over 8,000 Ontarians fully immunized with both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

There were about 77,000 health-care workers, 45,000 health-care workers in long-term care and retirement homes, and more than 13,000 long-term care home and retirement home residents who have been given the COVID-19 vaccine so far.

An additional 20,000 long-term care staff, residents and essential caregivers have specifically received the Moderna vaccine, the government added.

Last week, officials vowed to vaccinate all long-term care homes in the province’s hot spots—Toronto, Peel Region, York Region and Windsor-Essex—by Jan. 21.

On Wednesday, the government added a new deadline for the remaining long-term care homes and retirement homes in Ontario.

Officials now said they hope to administer the first dose of the vaccine to residents, staff and essential workers at Ontario long-term care homes and “high risk retirement homes” no later than Feb. 15.

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require a second dose be provided either 21 days or 28 days after the first shot is administered.

The province says they received about 80,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week and expects to release another 80,000 each week this month. On the week of Feb. 1, officials anticipate getting about 143,000 doses.

The rollout of the Moderna vaccine is a bit slower. The province expects to get about 56,000 doses this week, with more deliveries anticipated every three weeks.

To date, the vaccine has been administered at select hospitals and long-term care homes. The province hopes to expand distribution sites to include mobile sites to accommodate specific geographic locations and communities, as well as providing access to primary care professionals such as doctors and pharmacists.

Officials are also looking at sites such as the Metro Convention centre, which is being used by Toronto Public Health to provide vaccine to front-line, high-risk health-care workers. The pilot program is the first municipally-run vaccination site and is slated to open on Jan. 18.

Hillier has said that he hopes the pilot program will be a “playbook for mass vaccination clinics.”