In light of the increased COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Canada, the Ontario government has made significant amendments to its vaccine distribution plan. The province is currently in the midst of Phase I of its vaccination distribution implementation plan, which prioritizes highest-risk populations such as frontline healthcare workers, adults 80 years of age and older, indigenous communities, and individuals in congregate care settings for seniors. In preparation for its move to Phase II, Ontario has revised the eligibility criteria for vaccinations in Phase II.
Phase II, which is currently expected to run from April to July 2021, will initially focus on age. Individuals aged 60–79 will be eligible for vaccination, starting with individuals “79 years of age and decreasing in five-year increments over the course of the vaccine rollout.” In addition, Ontario’s vaccination plan has been adjusted to account for COVID-19 “hot spot” regions, individuals with specific health conditions, and workers who are unable to work from home.
Of particular interest to employers is that the plan prioritizes certain workforces that cannot work from home over those that can. According to information released by the Government of Ontario, workers who are unable to work remotely will be vaccinated in two groups:
Group One (consisting of approximately 730,000 people):
- “Elementary/secondary school staff and bus drivers that transport students”
- “Workers responding to critical events (e.g., police, fire, compliance, funeral, special constables)”
- “Child care workers”
- “Licensed foster care workers”
- “Food manufacturing workers”
- “Agriculture and farm workers”
Group Two (consisting of approximately 1.4 million people):
- “High-risk and critical retail workers (grocery and pharmacies)”
- “Remaining manufacturing workers”
- “Social workers (including youth justice)”
- “Courts and justice system workers (including probation and parole)”
- “Lower-risk retail workers (wholesalers, general goods)”
- “Transportation, warehousing and distribution”
- “Energy, telecom (data and voice), water and wastewater management”
- “Financial services”
- “Waste management”
- “Mining, oil and gas workers”
At-risk staff, essential caregivers, and residents of certain congregate settings (such as shelters, adult correctional institutions, mental health and addiction centres, and congregate settings where agricultural workers live) are also eligible for vaccination under Phase II.
Certain “hot spot” regions will receive additional doses of vaccines because the risks associated with COVID-19 are greatest in those areas. Therefore, employers with eligible Phase II employees living in the following locations may have their workforces vaccinated sooner than similar employees in other regions:
- Durham Region Health Department
- Halton Region Public Health
- City of Hamilton Public Health Services
- Niagara Region Public Health
- Ottawa Public Health
- Peel Public Health
- Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit
- Region of Waterloo Public Health and Emergency Services
- Wellington-Dufferin Guelph Public Health
- Windsor-Essex County Health Unit
- York Region Public Health
- Toronto Public Health
- Southwestern Public Health
The Ontario government has also published a list of health-based qualifications for Phase II, which includes “highest-risk,” “high-risk,” and “at-risk” conditions that would make a person eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, in Phase II, the Ontario government will prioritize “communities at greater risk,” including “Black and other racialized populations” and “‘[h]ot spots’ with historic and ongoing high rates of death, hospitalization and transmission.”
Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended extending the period between first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to four months. This recommendation has been made “in the context of [the] limited COVID-19 vaccine supply” that Canada has experienced during the pandemic. As such, Ontario—along with many other provinces—has accepted this recommendation, effective March 10, 2021, in the hopes of inoculating more people. It remains to be seen whether this practice will be revoked as vaccine supplies increase.
Key Takeaways for Employers
Phase II vaccine distribution represents the first opportunity for most Ontario employers to have essential and at-risk workers vaccinated. Employers in certain critical industries with workforces that cannot work from home in particular will benefit from Phase II distribution in Ontario. Employers of Phase II eligible workforces may wish to review their COVID-19 vaccination policies (or consider creating such policies if they do not have them) in light of these changes.
Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.
Michael C. Comartin is a partner in the Toronto office of Ogletree Deakins.
Caroline M. DeBruin is a 2020 graduate of Queen’s University, Faculty of Law, and is an articling student in the Toronto office of Ogletree Deakins.
Michael F. Lee is a 2020 graduate of the University of Western Ontario, Faculty of Law, and is an articling student in the Toronto office of Ogletree Deakins.