A dangerous new variant of COVID-19 has prompted politicians and public health officials to urge Ontario to learn from the early mistakes of its vaccine rollout and prioritize Peel Region for second doses, lest the province gets swept into a fourth wave of the pandemic.
The public health unit west of Toronto has long been a COVID-19 hot spot due in large part to the numerous essential workplaces in the area, and experts warn the Delta variant is now spreading in the region.
“I need vaccines yesterday. We’ve got crowded factories, and I know it’s like a tinderbox. It will spread like wildfire,” Patrick Brown, the mayor of Brampton said in an interview.
“I was screaming from the top of my lungs for months previously, about the first rollout. I’m hopeful that the lessons have been learned.”
The province was criticized for its per-capita distribution model early in the vaccine effort. It began prioritizing hot spots in late April, sending half of all doses to regions with high COVID-19 rates, but that ended after two weeks.
Evidence now suggests a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is not as effective against the Delta variant, which is also known as B.1.617 and first emerged in India.
Brown said he’s hoping to hear from the province about a change in approach over the weekend.
He said Peel Public Health needs the province’s approval to offer accelerated second doses to essential workers, because the region uses the provincial government’s COVID-19 vaccine booking system.
“We are literally months away from them being eligible for their second dose,” Brown said. “If we wait two months for them to get their second dose, this variant will be across Ontario.”
The province began offering accelerated second doses to residents aged 80 and older this week – Ontario previously had a four-month interval between shots.
On Friday, the government said that those aged 70 and older and people who received an mRNA vaccine on or before April 18 could now book second doses at pharmacies or primary care settings.
Starting on Monday, they’ll be able to book shots through the provincial booking system.
Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s top doctor, said his region has the highest proportion of the Delta variant in the province.
As of Wednesday, the public health unit had detected nearly 100 cases of the variant, but it’s not screening all positive test results for the strain.
“Preliminary analysis from the Science Table suggests that in one month, the Delta variant will be the dominant strain in our region, with the rest of Ontario weeks behind,” Loh told a press conference this week.
He said that if the province wants to reopen businesses, it must slow the spread of the Delta variant in Peel.
The co-chair of Canada’s federal vaccine task force tweeted that he agrees the province must send extra shots to Peel.
So far, the provincial government has not done so.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, co-ordinator of the province’s outbreak response, said Thursday that nothing is off the table, but there are no immediate plans to change tack.
“We’re continuing along the repetition of the first (phase), which was focused on age and at-risk, because we wanted to make sure that those who are at greatest individual risk are provided the earliest opportunity to have the best protection,” he said of second doses.
Dr. Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician and health justice activist, said that would be a mistake.
The pandemic has already disproportionately affected racialized communities, he said, and the Delta variant’s presence in Peel threatens to worsen that.
According to Statistics Canada, 62 per cent of Peel Region’s residents are categorized as visible minorities.
“In Peel, we have many people who are essential workers. We have many people living in multi-generational households, who don’t have the privilege of staying home that other people might have,” Dosani said.
That all allows COVID-19 to spread more easily throughout the region.
“I certainly hope we’ve learned our lessons from the past,” Dosani said.
“There’s really no excuse not to make the kinds of changes that need to be made to prevent people from getting sick, and to prevent an overall fourth wave across the province.”