Ontario pharmacists will be able to prescribe the antiviral COVID-19 treatment Paxlovid to patients as of next week.

Health Minister Sylvia Jones made the announcement on Thursday, saying this will be “another step to make it more convenient and faster for Ontarians to access care.”

While about 4,000 pharmacies have been dispensing the drug, patients still needed a prescription from a doctor or clinical assessment centre in order to access the medication.

As of Dec. 12, this will change. Eligible patients will be able to get prescriptions for Paxlovid in-person or virtually at no cost.

“By increasing access to these treatments in more convenient ways, we are helping to keep people healthier and reduce COVID-19 related hospitalizations,” Jones told reporters on Thursday.

It is unclear how many pharmacies will participate in the voluntary program.

“While it is a voluntary progress, we are quite optimistic that there will be many pharmacists that choose to do this because it is another pathway for them to assist their patients directly,” Jones said.

Justin Bates, president of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, said the expectation is that the majority of pharmacies will participate.

“But they'll have to look at their patient population and individual circumstances to make that determination,” he added.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health said back in early November the province was considering this change to help expand access to the drug and keep people out of hospitals amid the triple threat of COVID-19, influenza and RSV.

“There was concern in particular in isolated areas. Where you may not have good access to a primary care physician, you may have access to a pharmacist. So that gap was looked at and I do believe they're working aggressively on that,” Kieran Moore told the Canadian Press.

Bates added this will reduce barriers to the medication and ensure patients can get the treatments they need.

“We know that by using Paxlovid within five days from the onset of symptoms that we can prevent severe symptoms, and our ultimate goal is to prevent hospitalizations and by doing that we relieve some of that burden in emergency departments and hospitals and ICU units,” he said.

Paxlovid is available for individuals who are 60 years of age or older, adults who are immunocompromised or at a higher risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes including having chronic medical conditions.

With files from the Canadian Press.