TORONTO - A COVID-19 hot spot in Ontario is planning to ramp up its vaccine rollout by lowering the age of people eligible to receive the shot every week.

The top doctor for Peel Region, which includes the cities of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, said he hopes the move will help control the spread of COVID-19 variants of concern that are threatening to overwhelm the health-care system.

“We are at a very critical juncture with the increase in variants of concern and the frustration with the measures that are in place and our resources being strained to a maximum,” Dr. Lawrence Loh, the region's medical officer of health said Thursday.

“However, I am hopeful, because vaccination is here, and while it will need time to be successful, it will position us well to ultimately prevent a fourth wave.”

Peel public health officials said they will start vaccinating people aged 50 and older on Monday, and will descend through the age ranges in five year increments each week.

Public health experts have said the novel coronavirus is hardest to control in cities such as Brampton where households are larger and there's a higher proportion of essential service workers.

The region's latest plan comes as a provincewide stay-at-home order went into effect in a bid to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Faced with mounting pressure to start vaccinating essential workers, Premier Doug Ford's government announced Wednesday that people aged 18 years and older in hot spot regions would receive priority access to the shot in the coming weeks.

Loh said he understands the frustration many feel with the new restrictions, including the stay-at-home order, but vaccination alone is not enough to address the current situation.

“Even if we were to vaccinate everyone today, we would be unable to stop what is happening right now in our hospitals and through our community,” he said. “But this is really one large, giant collective community effort ... to ensure that we're keeping safe until we can move gradually out of what I hope will be a final closure.”

Officials with Peel Region said their vaccination timeline could be extended depending on vaccine supply or if uptake in an age group is higher than predicted.

They estimate that they will be able to give 65 per cent of the region's population their first shot by early June.

The region will use mass vaccination clinics for most people and mobile units to provide shots to those in hard-hit areas.

Meanwhile, Ontarians received emergency alerts about the stay-at-home order on their cellphones, radios and televisions Thursday morning.

The message, sent by the Ministry of the Solicitor General through the province's Alert Ready broadcast system, asked people to only leave their homes for essential purposes such as food, health care, exercise or work.

Under the new rules, stores that sell goods such as groceries, cleaning supplies and pharmacy products can remain open but only to sell essential items.

Non-essential retail can open for curbside pickup or delivery only.

The president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business said the province needs to do more to help small businesses survive this latest lockdown.

“CFIB is calling on the Ontario (government) to allow appointment based sales and service during the month long lockdown,” Dan Kelly said on social media. “Allowing a small business to safely serve an individual customer with an appointment can work in retail, personal services and more.”

Ontario's labour minister said Thursday that the province will send approximately 100 inspectors to Peel and Halton regions this weekend to enforce public health measures at big box stores, warehouses and manufacturers.

“We will have zero tolerance for those bad actors who break safety requirements as it puts the lives of workers and the public at risk,” Monte McNaughton said. “Our officers will not hesitate to issue tickets to those not following the rules.”

The province also promised to expand access to asymptomatic testing for students and school staff during spring break next week.

Previously, students were only able to access a test without symptoms if they were a close contact of a confirmed case of COVID-19 or were part of the government's surveillance testing regime.

“Our students deserve a safe return to their classrooms on April 19 so that they can keep learning, and we are committed to delivering on that,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement.

Ontario reported 3,295 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 19 more deaths linked to the virus.

The province said 108,563 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered since Wednesday's report, bring the total to 2,834,784 doses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2021.