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Final vaccination hurdles remain before Ontario further lifts pandemic restrictions


TORONTO — Ontario marked three weeks on Friday since entering the third step of its pandemic reopening plan but it has yet to hit the vaccination targets set for restrictions to roll back further. 

The province previously progressed through earlier phases of its reopening within 21 days, but the government has established three conditions that must be met before nearly all public health measures drop away. 

Eighty per cent of Ontarians aged 12 and older must have at least one shot, 75 per cent need to be fully immunized, and all public health units must have fully vaccinated 70 per cent of eligible residents before the province can move on from Step 3.

The first condition is the only one that has been met so far. 

As of Friday, 72 per cent of adults had been fully immunized, and only about half of Ontario's 34 health units had met the third condition. 

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said Friday that two GO Transit buses have been temporarily turned into mobile vaccination clinics and will travel around the province six days a week offering shots.

"The last mile of Ontario's vaccine rollout…is a challenging, but critically important, part of our campaign," she said.

The buses will target malls, festivals, farmers' markets, outdoor facilities, community hubs and anywhere else a local public health unit suggests, Jones said. 

But she held firm on the government's position that a vaccine certificate system, in which people would need to be fully immunized in order to access some non-essential services, is not necessary to achieve the vaccination rates it wants.

"Projects like the GO-VAXX bus are going to get that last 15 to 20 per cent," Jones said. "We're doing some innovative things that don't need to impose restrictions on people."

Quebec announced Thursday that it would introduce a vaccine certificate system, and the health minister said 11,519 people booked a first dose appointment that day - double the number of previous days.

Health units across Ontario are now getting creative, with vaccine clinics at markets, fire halls, and beaches in addition to mobile teams and traditional sites, as they try to boost immunization rates.

Halidmand-Norfolk, a largely rural health unit in southern Ontario, ranked last for vaccine coverage with 65 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated.

One of the largest barriers has been access to a clinic location, said an epidemiologist with the health unit. It is providing taxi service to clinics, and has now started pop-up sites at fire stations and workplaces. It is also offering a homebound vaccination program.

"Separately, we are also facing some misinformation campaigns in Haldimand and Norfolk that have made it difficult for some to access good and balanced information about the vaccine," Kate Bishop-Williams said. 

"The (health unit) works diligently to provide good evidence and information about the COVID-19 vaccine, but it can be a challenge to ensure that the information the community receives is accurate and trustworthy ...We are now looking at clinic models that include having someone onsite to answer questions that people who are deciding about vaccine might want to ask."

Simcoe-Muskoka, where 68 per cent of all eligible residents were fully vaccinated as of Friday, is offering vaccines at parks, beaches, sports complexes and shopping centres, with staff wearing blue shirts and employee badges for identification.

"Residents and visitors aged 12 years and older are encouraged to add getting their COVID-19 vaccines to their summer to do list," the health unit said.

All health units have reported at least 65 per cent full vaccine coverage. Seventeen units had fully vaccinated more than 70 per cent of eligible residents as of Friday. Eleven others had rates of 68 or 69 per cent. 

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said primary care doctors are also playing an important role to engage with hard-to-reach populations, such as the elderly or the vaccine hesitant.

Leeds, Grenville and Lanark in the province's east reported the highest inoculation rate, with 79 per cent of residents 12 and older fully vaccinated, 

The area's top doctor said the local vaccination program has been "a broad community effort," with four fixed clinics, mobile teams in smaller towns, paramedic outreach to homebound residents and involvement across health-care providers. 

Dr. Paula Stewart also said walk-in shots offered over the last few weeks expanded access. 

Step 3 of Ontario's reopening plan allows most businesses to reopen, but with capacity restrictions and other rules. There are also crowd limits on social gatherings and other events. The vast majority of restrictions would lift after Step 3, although rules on masking indoors would continue.

Public health officials across Ontario have been urging residents to get vaccinated, particularly in light of the more infections Delta variant of COVID-19. 

Ontario reported 340 new COVID-19 cases and 18 deaths from the virus on Friday, including several deaths that occurred more than six weeks ago.

That is the highest total of new cases since June 26. Higher numbers tend to get reported on Thursdays and Fridays, but when asked for the reasons behind Friday's spike, the health minister's spokeswoman pointed to the Delta variant.

Alexandra Hilkene said many cases are milder these days thanks to vaccinations, and ICU capacity remains stable.

There were 110 patients in intensive care with COVID-related critical illness and 76 people on ventilators. 

According to Public Health Ontario, from the end of June to the end of July, unvaccinated people were eight times more likely to become infected with COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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