The Ontario government has ordered more than five million doses of the flu vaccine as part of a new plan to protect the healthcare system from a possible increase in hospitalizations related to a second wave of COVID-19 that Premier Doug Ford now says will “come at us harder than the last one.”

Ford made the announcement at Queen’s Park on Tuesday, noting that it is the “first pillar” of a six-part plan to respond to the second wave of the pandemic with more announcements to come this week.

As part of the $70 million plan, the province has ordered 5.1 million flu vaccine doses, which represents a 16 per cent increase on the 4.4 million doses it ordered last year.

It will also set aside $26.5 million to purchase additional flu vaccine doses if required and for the first time will make high-dose vaccines for seniors available at select pharmacies, so that they can be more easily accessed.

“We know that a second wave is coming, we know that it will be more complicated than the first wave, we know it will be more challenging on the system, what we don’t know is how bad it will be, how hard we will get hit because that is up to all of us, we all have a part to play and it starts with everyone getting their flu shot this year,” Ford said in making the announcement.

Ontario had more than 5,000 flu-related hospitalizations last year

Ford said that the vaccination program being administered by his government will be “the largest and most comprehensive in Canada’s history” and will hopefully result in a reduction in the 5,719 flu-related hospitalizations in Ontario last year, thus freeing up more capacity for potential COVID-19 patients.

At the height of the first wave of the pandemic in April there were 1,043 people in hospital. That number dipped to as low as 32 in August but has started to inch back up in recent weeks and now stands at 82.

“Never before have the flu shots been so critical. Someone has a runny nose or maybe your kids have a runny nose and right away it is going to backlog the system again,” Ford warned on Monday, noting that he planned to be “the first in line” to get a flu shot this year. “It is just better if we take the flu shots.”

Horwath says Ford only 'has a plan to have a plan'

Opposition parties have repeatedly criticized Ford for not releasing his second wave preparedness plan sooner amid a steady increase in COVID-19 infections but on Tuesday he defended the delay and said that his government has “been working around the clock all summer long” to prepare for a possible resurgence of the virus.

He also said that the staggered release of the various elements that make up the plan is necessary in order to ensure that Ontarians are able to absorb all the details.

“This is a massive, massive plan, it is jammed with items and if we laid it all down at once the message isn’t going to get out to the people,” he said

Speaking with reporters following Ford’s announcement on Tuesday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath likened his government’s preparedness for an inevitable second wave to “having a plan to have a plan.”

She said that while the flu shot program will be important amid a global pandemic, the Ford government needs to do more than “just make a pronouncement that you have got to get your flu shots and this is how many are going to be available.”

“Of course flu shots are important. I think everybody knows flu shots are important. I think it has been clearly articulated by health experts that this will be an important year for folks to get their flu shots but what we didn’t hear was an addressing of some of the pressure that that increased demand is going to create and particularly about what pediatricians have been saying recently, which is that they are not going to be able to provide the same type of clinics that they have in the past (due to the need for physical distancing). Where is the plan to address that?” she asked.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says that the province will begin prioritizing early distribution of the flu shot to vulnerable populations in long-term care homes, hospitals and retirement homes in the last week of September. The flu shot will then be made available to the general public sometime in early October with a public education campaign encouraging people to get their flu shot being launched ahead of that.