Queen’s Park and Ottawa are working closely to ensure that the eventual COVID-19 vaccine is efficiently and equitably distributed, says provincial Finance Minister Rod Phillips.
In a wide-ranging discussion Friday with the Star editorial board, the treasurer said even as the short-term outlook is grim, with greater lockdowns to curb infections, the future appears more encouraging.
“There’s positive signs. We need to have hope and optimism, because as humans we need that,” said Phillips, stressing the Progressive Conservative government is basing its outlook on tangible scientific evidence.
“This is an area where the … collaboration with the federal government is very high,” he said of the logistical challenges about safely shipping and storing vaccine doses.
“It will hopefully be the story of 2021 … and we want to make sure it works well in Ontario and we’ve got people working on the logistics with the federal government.”
But Phillips, who was at the Star to promote his record $187-billion budget tabled last week, conceded there will be challenges even when a vaccine is widely available.
“These are very complicated scientific choices … getting people to accept and take the vaccine,” said, the finance minister, who has earmarked $45 billion over three years for COVID-19 expenses.
Philips was asked if he thought the land border between the Canada and the U.S., which has been closed since March 20, could reopen before there’s a vaccine. “I don’t think the border can reopen at the case levels we’re seeing in the United States,” he said. “But of course it’s up the federal government.”
The current border restrictions, which are in place until Nov. 21, are expected to be extended as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continue to rise at rates far higher than in Canada.
Some 243,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus compared with fewer than 11,000 Canadians — that’s 22 times more deaths in a country with a population that’s only eight times greater.
The treasurer said that despite American challenges on containing COVID-19, in terms of a vaccine “they look like they’re reasonably organized on that front.”
And “much as we should understandably want Ontario to be first in line, we should really want the United States to do a really good job of distributing the vaccine,” said Phillips, “because we need that connectivity with the North American economy back sooner than later. So it’s not just about us. It’s about us and the rest of Canada and our biggest trading partner.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office said the province is closely monitoring vaccine developments.
“The news about the Pfizer vaccine is very encouraging,” Elliott’s officials said, referring to the pharmaceutical giant’s preliminary findings of as much as 90 per cent immunity.
“At the same time, it’s important to remember that a vaccine is still months away and everyone needs to continue to follow the public health advice,” the office added, referring to the need to wear a mask indoors in public places or in crowds, wash hands, and maintain safe physical distance of two metres.
“The federal government has put in place several advanced purchase agreements with companies, including Pfizer, for COVID-19 vaccine doses for Canada,” it continued.
But the Public Health Agency of Canada will be taking the lead on getting those doses to the provinces and territories.
“We are working to ensure that Ontario is prepared for a COVID-19 vaccine and that we have a fair and equitable response.”
While matters like storage of the temperature-sensitive serum must still be resolved, it is expected that Ontario will use a similar distribution system that has been employed for years with the flu vaccine, which is available in hundreds of pharmacies across the province.
So far this year, Ontario pharmacies have administered more than 1 million flu vaccinations compared with 250,000 in 2019.
The provincial health ministry, which routinely returns unused flu vaccine doses because it buys more than it needs, has ordered 5.1 million shots this year, 700,000 more than usual. As well, $28 million has been set aside to buy more.
COVID-19 tests are also available at scores of pharmacies, including selected Shoppers Drug Mart and Rexall outlets and some independent stores.