The head of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force has provided more specific timelines for when members of the general population can expect to receive their first shot, starting with people age 80 and over next month.

Speaking at a news conference at Queen’s Park on Wednesday, Ret. Gen. Rick Hillier said the province’s online vaccine booking system and call centre will go live on March 15 and residents who are over the age of 80 can make an appointment at that time. The province will not begin administering the vaccine to that age group until the third week of March and Hillier said there are about 550,000 people in that cohort who will need to be inoculated.

Over the next few weeks, the province will be focusing on completing first doses for patient-facing health-care workers who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19, long-term care home workers and essential caregivers, and residents and workers at retirement homes across Ontario. So far, all long-term care and high-risk retirement home residents in the province have been offered their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Hillier said the province expects to begin vaccinating those over the age of 75 starting on April 15 and people over 70 one month later. The target date for vaccinating people 65 and over is June 1, Hillier said, and July 1 for people 60 and over.

“We anticipate if the supply is good, we will be able to start with essential workers the first week in May and continue rolling them out concurrently and… in the communities disproportionately affected,” he told reporters.

Ontario has not said who will be included in the list of essential workers.

How the province proceeds with vaccinating the remaining members of the population will depend on vaccine supply, Hillier said.

“That is a ways out there to start with. There will be an ongoing discussion as to what is the best way and so much of it will depend on the vaccine arrival and how many there are,” he said.

“We may reach a point in late summer where the number of vaccines coming in are huge… and we may be able just to go flat out to the general population.”

He said decisions on how to proceed with vaccinating the rest of the province will likely take place in the summer.

Hillier would not commit to the federal government’s timeline of providing a shot to everyone who wants one by the end September.

“The federal government has been saying you can depend on the supply of vaccines now. It is stable and here are the numbers that are coming and more are coming later. Well we are going to take them at their word and starting from here on out, we are not going to be saving them in our freezers, that second needle,” he said.

“I’d love to say by Labour Day weekend we are going to have every single person in Ontario who is eligible and who wants a vaccine to have one. I’m a little bit reluctant to do that because it depends on the arrival of those vaccines.”

The province has not yet provided specifics on where people will be able to get vaccinated but Hillier says those details will be coming shortly.

“I know people want to know where all the vaccination centres are but the vast majority of those vaccination centres are still not operating because we are at that different group of the population and we don’t have vaccines to put in them to start them up,” he added.

“Be assured that when you come on to book your appointment, you will be given the vaccination centres, the vaccination clinics that are closest to you and you will be able to go in and make a reservation.”

The province is urging those who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine to stay off the online portal when it launches next month.

“On the 15th of March, when we go live, unless you are 80 years old or older, unless you are the agent or family member acting for someone who is 80 years old or older, please do not go to the call centre, please do not go online,” he said.

“You will be blocked from going into the system… and in the call centre you will simply be tying up a line that we need to help somebody out who can’t go online who needs that conversation.”

Alberta opens up appointments to people 75 and up

At a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, Premier Doug Ford was pressed about why other provinces, including Alberta, appear to be ahead of Ontario when it comes to vaccinating older members of the general population.

On Wednesday, Alberta announced that anyone over the age of 75 can now book an appointment to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite the fact that the number of vaccine doses are provided to provinces based on population, Ford asserted that the reason Alberta can vaccinate that age group sooner than Ontario is simply because the province has a smaller population.

"The population of Alberta is little over four million where we're upwards to 15 million and it's as simple as that," Ford told reporters at Queen's Park. "It's just sheer numbers."

In Quebec, the premier added, the province hasn't administered "one single dose of the second vaccine."

"I have all the confidence in the world with Gen. Hillier. I have all the confidence in the world in our public health units, our hospitals," he said. "We're focusing on the task at hand and the task at hand right now is the priority populations."

Ford added that Alberta's online appointment portal crashed today due to the influx of traffic.

"We want to make sure we nail this," Ford said of Ontario's portal.

When asked about why Ontario isn't launching their booking portal sooner, Hillier said there is no need for it to be up sooner than March 15.

"The populations that (we are targeting) in the next four to five weeks… we actually don’t need bookings for them," he said, adding that the province has a different system for scheduling appointments for health-care workers and other priority groups.

Shots aren’t going to doctors’ offices in near future

During the initial rollout, most vaccines will be administered at mass vaccination sites across Ontario.

Hillier said while vaccines will be sent to pharmacies in the coming months, the province has no immediate plans to vaccinate people in doctors’ offices.

“Vaccines will not go into doctors’ offices in the near future. Simply the handling characteristics of both Pfizer and Moderna and the scarcity of them do not permit that to occur,” he said.

The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines come in vials of ten or six doses each that must be kept frozen at ultra-cold temperatures and must be used in one day or less after they are thawed.

He noted that family doctors will have a role to play in the early stages of the vaccine program.

“’What we are asking those primary care professionals, including obviously the doctors, is to reach out to your patients, to reach out to the public health unit, to become part of a vaccination clinic with that public health unit, and many of them are already doing that,” he said.

“Have your patients come to that clinic and be able to give them the vaccination yourself or one of your colleagues… Maybe when AstraZeneca shows, or maybe another vaccine shows and is approved and ready for use and we have big numbers, then maybe we could go (put) vaccines in doctors’ offices also.”

Ontario has administered a total of 602,848 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to date. Two doses are required to be fully vaccinated and so far, 251,590 Ontarians have received both shots.

The province is expecting to receive 186,030 more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week along with 47,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

The federal government has said Pfizer will deliver a total of four million doses and Moderna will deliver two million doses to Canada by the end of March.

Earlier this week, Premier Doug Ford confirmed that each of Ontario’s 34 public health units will bear the brunt of the responsibility when it comes to inoculating Ontarians against the novel coronavirus.

The provincial government has already provided guidance on which priority groups to vaccinate in each of the three phases of its vaccination program but details on how and when to administer those vaccines will be left up to the individual public health units.