In this file photo, a nurse holds a phial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Guy's Hospital in London, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit is asking the community for a bit more patience for the COVID-19 vaccine, with mass distribution still about three months away.

WECHU says they received many questions from residents about the COVID-19 vaccine, especially when we can expect it to be distributed more widely to everyone locally.

“We understand the urgency, at a time when our case counts are very high, we have outbreaks across many sectors and we are in lockdown. We too, want to vaccinate everyone as quickly and safely as possible,” said a news release from the health unit on Monday.

The health unit says they are working daily with the Ministry of Health regarding the priority groups for vaccination and the vaccine rollout.

Health unit CEO Theresa Marentette announced Monday that all 19 long-term care homes in the region have received the vaccine. 

“It is a huge accomplishment and a great start,” says Marentette.

Now vaccinations will begin at the 25 retirement homes in the area. The vaccine is voluntary for residents.

WECHU says vaccines are expected to be available to everyone who wants to be immunized in phase 3 of the Ontario vaccine distribution plan, which is three months away or sooner, depending on vaccine supply.

The provincial government’s three-phase distribution plan focuses first on vulnerable populations that are at greatest risk of COVID-19 and severe illness and those who care for them.

The groups selected for vaccination in each phase are based on an ethical framework, best available data to identify priority populations, and the vaccine supply. Early doses of the vaccine in phase 1 will be available for the following groups.

  • Residents, staff, essential caregivers (including family caregivers) and other employees who work in congregate living settings providing care for seniors as they are at higher risk of infection and serious illness from COVID-19.
  • Health care workers, including hospital employees, other staff who work or study in hospitals and other health care personnel. (There is further guidance on how to prioritize the healthcare workers starting from those who will be at the highest risk of acquiring the disease and will be at the risk of developing more severe complications)
  • Adults in First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations where infection can have disproportionate consequences, including those living in remote or isolated areas where risk of transmission is high.
  • Adult recipients of chronic home health care.

The provincial and local direction is to first vaccinate all residents, staff, and essential caregivers who work in long-term care homes and high-risk retirement homes.

“Public health is working directly with long-term care homes and retirement homes to ensure the vaccine is administered as quickly and as safely as possible to residents, staff, and essential caregivers of these homes,” said WECHU.

“The vaccine we have received to date is for this targeted population. We are not receiving daily supplies of the vaccine and it is not sitting in freezers going unused.”

The health unit said preparation and planning for future priority groups is already taking place.

WECHU said it will be working with all partners to ensure a smooth rollout of vaccines.

Phase 2 of the provincial vaccine distribution plan will occur when more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine become available to Ontario and to the Windsor-Essex health unit region. This is expected to begin later this winter and vaccinations will likely be expanded to include additional congregate care settings (for example, shelters).

WECHU is directly involved in the vaccine rollout and is aligned with direction from the Ministry of Health and the Ontario government.

“As more direction and information is received, we will continue to inform the community, as we’ve done throughout the pandemic, about the next phase of the COVID-19 vaccination distribution plan for Windsor and Essex County,” said the health unit.

The health unit said they will be working with all hospital and community partners to implement a local and robust mass vaccination plan for phase 3 that uses their collective resources efficiently and effectively, while at the same time ensuring that other vulnerable groups not targeted in phase 1 and 2 of the provincial vaccine rollout plan are not missed.

“This process must be evidence-based, using an ethical framework, and not arbitrary,” said WECHU.

Health officials said they want to have everyone cross the finish line together and that remains their goal.

“We are asking the community for a bit more patience,” said WECHU. “You have been amazing so far!”

Residents are reminded to continue to practice public health measures to help prevent further spread of COVID-19 in our community.