The head of Toronto’s COVID-19 emergency response said Monday that younger residents living in hot spot neighbourhoods will not be getting an invite to attend mass immunization sites for now.

“The eligibility that the province extended to those between 18 and 49 years old was and is limited to taking part in mobile and pop-up clinics that are launched specifically in high-risk neighborhoods,” Chief Mathew Pegg said. “The province did not make the vaccine available by other means including through city-operated vaccine clinics to that age category yet.”

Speaking at a news conference, Pegg conceded that there has been some confusion around how the younger age group in hot spot areas can access vaccines.

“I appreciate that there is some confusion and I think that we all appreciate how quickly these things are moving and how quickly we're all having to respond and pivot if you will, to the changes that are being made,” he said.

Also Monday, the University Health Network changed its registration policy so that hot spot residents between 18 and 49 in its catchment area (postal codes starting M5V, M6E or M6H) can register on its system, allowing them to potentially be called for an appointment through a hospital vaccination clinic. However registration does not allow residents to book a slot for an appointment or tell them when they might get a shot.

On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford said that the province was modifying Phase 2 of its vaccination plan so that those between 18 and 49 years old in hot spot areas would be included.

However Phase 2 is slated to run until July and Ford did not specify exactly how and when eligibility would be expanded to those age groups, leading to some confusion.

While the eligibility age to register at mass immunization sites was dropped to 50 for those living in Toronto hot spot areas last week, younger people living in hot spot zones were only able to obtain a shot through a handful of pop-up walk-in vaccination clinics operating in select neighbourhoods.

Pegg said Monday that for the time being, those between 18 and 49 will not be able to access a shot through mass immunization centres.

“We know that in due course and at some point hopefully in the near future that will change, but as it is right now, those 18 years of age and older who are eligible for a vaccine are eligible in hot spot neighborhoods at such time as there is a pop-up or mobile clinic launched,” he said.  

He said decisions about where the pop-up clinics will be held are made by the Ontario Healthcare Leadership Table and the clinics are operated by Ontario health teams. Their locations are communicated through local networks in order to try and target just those people who live in the area.

Tory hopes hot spot residents 18+ will soon be able to use provincial booking system

Mayor John Tory said earlier Monday that pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinics are continuing to operate in Toronto this week as the city works with the province to open up the provincial appointment booking system to residents over the age of 18 in the city’s hot spot neighbourhoods.

On Saturday and Sunday, long lineups formed outside a Thorncliffe Park pop-up clinic where residents aged 18 and older in select hot spot postal codes were eligible for a shot.

About 2,400 doses were administered at the clinic over the weekend.

“There are clinics like that going on every day and so today there are at least seven happening in hot spot neighbourhoods and those are open to people who are 18 plus,” Tory said.

He noted that city staff are currently working with the province to open up the vaccine booking portal to younger age groups in hot spot postal codes in Toronto.

“As of yet, it is not possible for the 18 plus people, as opposed to those 50 and over, to use the provincial registration system but we're working on that with the province and hopefully before too long it will be possible for 18 plus people in hot spot neighbourhoods to use the provincial registration system,” he said.

“Just as an example of how it helped us. When we opened the registration to 50 plus people in hot spot neighbourhoods Friday, about 75,000 people over the weekend booked appointments at the city-run clinics. So that's why they are pretty much booked up this week.”

Three more city-run mass immunization clinics opened up in Toronto today, including sites at Cloverdale Mall, the North Toronto Memorial Community Centre, and the Carmine Stefano Community Centre. There are now nine mass vaccination sites being operated by the City of Toronto.

Pegg said that demand remains “very high” at those sites. He said that all of them are currently booked up through the end of the week and that some are now fully booked up into May.

The city said in a news release that its clinics are running at or near capacity based on vaccine supply for the next week. The city also said Monday that 20 per cent of Toronto residents have now received at least one dose of a vaccine, with 758,882 doses administered so far.

All Toronto residents aged 60 and older are currently eligible to book an appointment at these centres, along with those 50 and older in hot spot neighbourhoods identified by the province. But few details have been provided to date about how the vaccines will be rolled out to younger members of the population in hot spot communities and some people have expressed frustration about the lack of communication from the city and province.

"I don't want to jump any queue. There are people that are more in dire need than we are," one woman told CP24 after being turned away from a mass vaccination site on Monday. "We are prepared to wait. We just don't know when we are waiting for."

Tory said that the mayors and chairs from the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area met Monday and agreed to ask the province to clarify eligibility across regions so that there is less confusion as to who is eligible for an appointment and when.

“We think that's very important to the maintenance of public confidence and just to people's understanding,” he said.

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa said her team also continues to have discussions with the province about how to more effectively roll out vaccines where they are needed most.

“I can assure you that we are having conversations all the time with our provincial counterparts on the COVID-19 response, including the rollout of vaccinations on a regular basis,” de Villa said. “So I look forward to having ongoing and productive conversations with the province on how we actually more effectively roll out vaccines as quickly as possible so that we can put this pandemic behind us.”

During Question Period on Monday, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott was grilled about the confusion some members of the public have faced due to the province's lack of communication about inoculating residents in hot spots.

"We know that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected certain neighbourhoods," Elliot said.

"We've identified postal codes in different units... that will be treated as hot spot areas that will have more pop-up and mobile vaccination centres as well as those that are available through our booking centre and our pharmacies."

Tory said Monday that the city plans to launch an ambassador program that will help get the word out to the public about vaccination clinics in the city.

The mayor said the city has the capacity to inoculate more residents but is limited by the amount of supply that has been allocated.

“Obviously you can't operate a clinic without vaccine so what we do and what we have done from the beginning is we don't offer an appointment unless we have committed vaccine to accompany that appointment,” he said.

“So as we plan ahead, going out several weeks, we base the number of appointments we’re offering on the vaccine we know is going to be available to us.”

In York Region, some clinics, including the mass immunization site at Canada’s Wonderland, have been forced to temporarily close due to a lack of vaccine supply.

“Unfortunately the Ontario government was not able to provide York Region with any additional Pfizer or Moderna vaccine to support our public health-led clinics,” a statement from a York Region spokesperson read.

“As a result, we are forced to temporarily close clinics at Canada’s Wonderland and the Georgina Ice Palace, effective Tuesday, April 13, 2021. These clinics will remain closed until we receive additional vaccine.”