Hamilton could offer COVID-19 vaccines to lower age groups this week

By: Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator
The city is “hopeful” that the age limit for the COVID-19 vaccine will drop lower this week, while the province says Hamilton is expected to soon have more vaccines in local pharmacies.
The news comes after appointments dropped at the city’s mass immunization clinics over the weekend and into Monday.
In an interview Monday, Flamborough-Glanbrook MPP Donna Skelly said Hamilton public health should consider lowering the age bracket of residents eligible for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, referencing a decline in appointments at the Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) clinic on Wellington Street over the long weekend.
On Sunday, there were reports about hundreds of same-day appointments available at the clinic on 293 Wellington St. N. An HHS doctor Tweeted Sunday morning that the clinic was accepting walk-ins that day.
According to city stats, 1,701 doses were delivered at the HHS clinic from April 2 to the end of April 4, less than 600 per day on average — a number which used to be more than 1,000 per day near the end of March.
An HHS spokesperson could not comment on unused appointments at the clinic, deferring instead to public health. Public health confirmed there were “unfilled appointments” over the weekend resulting in the clinic allowing walk-ins. It’s not clear why there were leftover appointments when public health says there is “high demand” for vaccines.
Public health also said only 188 appointments out of 850 were booked at the FirstOntario Centre on Monday.
At council last week, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said Hamilton takes direction from the province on when to allow younger age groups to receive the vaccine. She said places like Halton, which are not under the provincial system, can make those decisions independently.
But Skelly insisted public health units can make that decision locally.
“Public health units, if they feel that there isn’t enough uptake from people over 70, they can lower the age limit and still use the provincial system,” she said.
In a statement, public health said that, because the city uses Ontario’s booking system, eligibility depends on the age limit set by the province. Public health “is hopeful that the province will be lowering the age threshold on the system this week,” said spokesperson James Berry.
On Friday, Toronto and Peel public health began offering appointments to residents 60 years and up.
Skelly also responded to local politicians expressing “outrage” at the absence of lower-city pharmacies in the AstraZeneca rollout, saying that the number of Hamilton pharmacies administering vaccines is expected to grow from 21 to 69 “within days.”
On April 1, the Ford government announced 21 local pharmacies would offer the AstraZeneca vaccine from as early as April 3. Previously, Hamilton was part of a pilot project where 4,500 residents aged 60 and up were contacted by their family doctors to receive the vaccine from March 13 to April 2.
In a joint statement Monday, six officials blamed the province for not designating any pharmacies in the inner city for COVID vaccines, calling the decision “nothing short of reckless.”
“This exclusion is incomprehensible and irresponsible given the risks in lower- and inner-city Hamilton,” says the statement signed by Matthew Green (MP Hamilton Centre), Andrea Horwath (MPP Hamilton Centre), and councillors Maureen Wilson (Ward 1), Jason Farr (Ward 2), Nrinder Nann (Ward 3) and Sam Merulla (Ward 4).
The lower city has denser neighbourhoods and residents who are more vulnerable to the impacts of the virus, the statement said, also pointing to a large number of essential workers in the area.
The Spectator reported in February that Hamilton’s most racialized neighbourhoods were in areas with the highest incidence rates of COVID-19. Two of those neighbourhoods were downtown in Ward 2, and two were in west Hamilton’s Ward 1.
“It certainly wasn’t anything intentional,” Skelly said when asked how the pharmacies were chosen.
Richard Askwith, a 66-year-old Central Hamilton resident, called it “strange” that his area with a dense population and lower income level wasn’t included.
“I would have thought the Central area would’ve been the highest priority,” he said.
Skelly noted that residents 55 years and older can register for a vaccine at a participating pharmacy in any part of the city — which Askwith did. But he said it’s not that easy for those who walk or use transit to get around.
“Getting up on top of the Mountain is a very time-consuming thing when you take the bus,” he said. “They’re the people who need to be vaccinated.”
The ministry of the solicitor general said in a statement that pharmacies were chosen partly based on their participation in the flu shot program in 2020-21. Both chain and independent pharmacies are included in the AstraZeneca rollout and their selection “included input from local public health units, the Ontario Pharmacists Association and Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada,” said spokesperson Stephen Warner.