Ontario’s chief medical officer of health says the province will look at “all possibilities” to improve immunization rates as it looks to boost vaccine uptake ahead of an expected surge in COVID-19 cases this fall.
While eight of 10 Ontarians eligible for the vaccine have had at least one dose, that still means two of every 10 have not received a shot, Dr. Kieran Moore said Tuesday. Excluding those who are not eligible, he said, that means about 2.5 million people still need to be immunized.
But with fall around the corner, Moore said “time is of the essence. There are only six weeks to go before September, when school is set to resume, and the cooler weather will begin driving us indoors. We’ll be in closed spaces with closer faces in crowded spaces, so our risk will be going up very shortly.”
He said “for those who are not vaccinated and may have a chronic illness, or who are older, you need that six weeks to build immunity. You need your first injection” to be prepared for the fall when cases are expected to rise.
Speaking at Queen’s Park, Moore said it’s “reasonable” to look at offering incentives to encourage people to get the shots, but did not offer details of what they might include.
“I think we’ll look at all possibilities of trying to achieve that, whether it’s through different partners in immunization incentivizing ... or ensuring that the accessibility and the availability of immunization increases,” he said.
“I think we can still do a lot of work before we have to have any type of mandatory passport and or mandate of vaccination.”
Last week, Premier Doug Ford said he opposes mandatory vaccination policies, even in workplaces like hospitals and long-term-care homes, and Moore noted that any such decision rests with the government.
Moore said that some local health units have come up with creative solutions, such as having “buses going to beaches, working at malls, trying to get the message out to a younger population that has a lower immunization rates so I think we have time yet to try to use as many means as possible before we have to move to incentives and/or any other policy approach.”
Any spike in cases here “will most likely be in those that are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated,” he added.
“We have time to avoid that reality.”
Moore would like Ontario’s vaccination rate to hit 90 per cent because it would reduce the risks posed by the Delta variant.
On Monday, leading pediatric experts in the province issued their report on how to resume in-person schooling safely this fall, saying that in areas with low COVID-19 cases — Moore said that would be 10 cases per 100,000 people per week — masking, cohorting and physical distancing would not be needed.
The report, from Sick Kids, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and other pediatric hospitals said schools should only be shut down because of “catastrophic circumstances.”
Ontario students were away from in-person classes for 26 weeks over the last year and a half, and spent the most time learning online during the pandemic of anywhere in the country.
“We want schools to be fully open — the first to open and the last to close — and I’ve confirmed that with all of my ... fellow medical officers of health across Ontario,” Moore said. “That is our aim and our goal to get the schools open as fully as possible.”
He said back-to-school plans are in the works and that Education Minister Stephen Lecce is reviewing the Sick Kids report.
As for the report’s masking recommendation, “it may be that we have a very cautious start in September, and then monitor the situation because I don’t know if it will achieve that high community immunity that we need in September,” Moore said.
“So that’s the decision that I don’t believe has been made as of yet.”
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy