Toronto Mayor John Tory says the province needs to retool its COVID-19 vaccine priority list to focus on hardest-hit regions and essential workers, and stop just moving down the age pyramid to determine eligibility, as the number of patients in Ontario hospital ICUs hit a new record.

Tory says that the spread in areas where essential workers cannot stay home is unacceptable and the current regime of vaccine rollout is not reaching them.

“We need to be taking vaccines out to higher risk places of employment – taking vaccines out to buildings in higher risk neighbourhoods so we can proactively go and put those needles in arms,” Tory said on CP24 on Sunday morning.

The present vaccine priority phase, which began this month, includes essential supply chain workers, teachers and others who cannot work from home but shots have primarily still been aimed at the general population, ages 60 and up.

Select hospitals and vaccine clinics have begun reaching out to people 50 and older in Toronto, so long as they reside in postal codes identified as hot zones for coronavirus transmission.

Tory said the current provincial vaccine appointment system moves down the population in increments of age, making it difficult to tailor it for essential workers.

“At the present time the provincial registration system can only be registered based on age – so if you’re 42 and you work in a higher risk setting, there would be no way to register you because you’re under the age that is presently being taken by the system.”

University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. Colin Furness said the system needs to be retooled to get at more at-risk workers as soon as possible.

“If we have doses sitting in freezers and we also have reports in the media of appointments going unfilled, then we’ve got a very inefficient system here,” he told CTV News Channel.

“We should be queuing up essential workers, and we’re not doing that.”

As of Sunday morning, there were about 980,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses awaiting use in Ontario.

Meanwhile, Critical Care Services Ontario said that as of midnight Saturday, there were 467 people in Ontario hospital intensive care units due to COVID-19, 47 more than the peak of the second wave of COVID-19 in January.

Dr. Michael Warner of Michael Garron Hospital shared the story of one of those ICU patients, a woman in her 40s who got sick after her husband contracted COVID-19 at the factory where he worked.

“Her husband works in a factory that had a COVID-19 outbreak, but it wasn’t on his shift, so he was told to go to work anyway,” Warner told CP24, adding that the family gave him permission to share her story.

“She started in a position where we could talk to her – then we had to intubate her, then we had to prone her, then she got so sick we had to transfer her to Toronto General Hospital.”

He said it took 17 healthcare staff three hours to link her to a Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine, of which there are only a few dozen in the province, but it wasn’t enough.

She passed away without being able to speak to her family.

“The closest they got to say goodbye to her was a watching her on a Zoom meeting while she was paralyzed and sedated in the ICU,” Warner said.

He said her family agreed for him to share her story in a bid to get people to realize the third wave of the virus is a different beast and will require people to make sacrifices if it is defeated.

“People should not be at Yorkdale (Mall) – because you’re doing that on the back of the people who end up in my ICU,” he said.

He urged the province to institute a stay-at-home order in the GTHA, and mandatory rapid testing of all indoor workplaces with more than 10 employees.

He also said the province needs to get more factory and warehouse workers vaccinated as soon as possible.

Dr. Andrew Boozary of UHN said the fact that the same situation is being observed in the third wave, with low-income racialized working people bearing the brunt of the impact of the pandemic is inexcusable.

"I hope policymakers and politicians call these families to hear what could have been done with these stories that have played out again and again in Brown and Black communities, because the response of saying ‘we’re just going to close down patios,’ you don’t have to be a policy scholar to feel that this is not going to be nearly enough," he told CP24.

In Scarborough, the hospitals are now at more than surge capacity, and are either transferring patients outside of the GTA or finding ways to treat them in “unconventional” spaces.

“When I look at those numbers – I feel like there’s a vice around me,” Scarborough Health Network Dr. Lisa Salamon said of the total ICU burden in Ontario due to COVID-19

She said the patients she sees entering her hospital are younger than the second wave, and most are racialized.

At some point, hospitals in other parts of the province may not be able to take pressure off her hospital, Salamon said.

“We are already at surge capacity and we’re already being asked to surge even more. At some point there won’t be any ICUs to transfer to.”

Recent modelling suggested that even in a better than worse-case scenario, the number of COVID-19 patients in Ontario hospital ICUs might hit 800 by the end of April.