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Clinics in Toronto hot spots run out of vaccines as cases continue to rise

TORONTO — Ontario's plan to immunize all adults in COVID-19 hot spots hit another speed bump Wednesday when four clinics in Toronto ran out of vaccines and had to cancel appointments or close temporarily.

Both the province and the city’s top doctor said a delay in the latest shipment of Moderna vaccines was to blame for the supply shortages.

“We are only stocking our clinics with just enough vaccine to see us through until the next delivery,” Dr. Eileen de Villa said. “There were vaccines that were anticipated to arrive on a certain date. Unfortunately, that date was missed.”

In the city’s east end – one of the hardest hit communities in Toronto – Scarborough Health Network said two clinics would remain closed until Monday, when a new shipment of vaccines is expected to arrive. 

“Scarborough continues to struggle with the incomprehensible disparity in vaccine distribution for Canada's most diverse community and one of Ontario's most severe hot spots,” said Maureen Adamson, the chair of the health network’s board of directors.

North York General and Michael Garron Hospital said they too were temporarily closing their clinics because of supply issues.

University Health Network said it had to suspend bookings for appointments for those aged 18 and older in three high-risk communities in downtown Toronto after more than 21,000 people registered for a vaccine. 

A UHN spokeswoman said that if the health network had sufficient and reliable vaccine supply, its clinics could vaccinate 35,000 people per week.

“The supply must move from the federal government so that provinces can get on with vaccination,” said Gillian Howard.

The CEO of the University Health Network said in addition to the vaccine delay, expanding the rollout to include younger people in hot spots as well as offering the second dose to cancer patients and transplant recipients on immunosuppressing drugs also contributed to the supply shortage.

Kevin Smith said vaccinating people in hot spots was a wise decision, and the UHN was initially worried there would be a lot of vaccine hesitancy in those communities. 

Instead, Smith said there was tremendous uptake with 21,000 people quickly signing up for vaccination appointments. But the clinics did not have enough vaccines. 

The province said a Moderna shipment that was supposed to arrive earlier this month has been delayed twice.

“A 10-day delay doesn’t sound like a long time, but when you’ve already booked appointments,  when you’ve set up those vaccine clinics … it is incredibly frustrating not only for the public health units … but also for the citizens who were excited and wanting to get that vaccine,” said Sylvia Jones, the province’s solicitor general.

The Progressive Conservative government has faced criticism about lack of a clear plan to vaccinate people in hot spot areas and essential workers. 

Premier Doug Ford announced last week that people aged 18 and older in hot spots would be eligible for a shot, but did not say how the process would unfold, leaving many eligible residents frustrated.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she has no doubt the federal government has done a poor job of procuring vaccines, but that doesn’t let Ford’s government off the hook.

“The messed up distribution system here in Ontario sits at the feet of Doug Ford and his government,” she said.

The province reported 4,156 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday – 1,254 of them in Toronto – and 28 deaths linked to the virus.

The recent surge in new cases – fueled by the COVID-19 variants of concern – threatens to overwhelm the province’s hospitals, which have implemented emergency measures to address the crunch for beds in intensive care units. 

Ontario has received a total of 4,506,495 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far, and administered 3,310,157 doses – or 73.45 per cent of the supply. 

The province has said the remaining doses are spoken for and will be administered in the coming days.

A group of medical experts and a Toronto city councillor wrote to Ford on Wednesday asking the province to allow all Ontarians to book vaccine appointments. 

“This will not only provide the province with helpful data on how many Ontarians are interested in receiving the vaccine, and assist with management of vaccine supply, but also provide an overview of which postal codes are vaccine hesitant,” the group wrote. 

“Moreover, and importantly, this will help many Ontarians feel one step closer to overcoming the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, the city of Ottawa said Wednesday it was contemplating amending the operating hours of its public parks to help enforce Ontario’s stay-at-home order.

A memo by the city manager says some parks can be closed at 9 p.m. if the local ward councillor and the city agree.

“Since the provincewide state of emergency was declared, public gatherings at certain city parks have exceeded the current public health guidelines,” the memo said. “Large gatherings, parties and other activities have occurred in parks that put the public's health at risk.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords and John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press