Ontario’s health ministry and Niagara’s lone Tory MPP would not acknowledge Thursday that the provincial government had redirected a shipment of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine away from the region this week, and instead touted the government’s vaccination plan even as the local situation continued to worsen.
At the same time, a cadre of local politicians lined up behind a group of senior Niagara Health doctors calling on the province to provide more vaccines to protect local long-term care homes and front line health care workers, and reinstate the shipment.
On Wednesday, Niagara Health’s medical advisory committee — which is comprised of the hospital system’s leading physicians — issued an open letter to community leaders, asking for support in calling for more help from the provincial government. The letter also asks Queen’s Park to “restore the allocation of the Moderna vaccine that was unfairly taken away.”
Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, says Niagara was set to receive shipments of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines this week. But last week, without explanation, the provincial government redirected the Moderna shipment to another community.
Vaccine supplies are currently limited, and are being used to protect long-term care residents and frontline health care workers, particularly in those regions with high rates of transmission.
While Niagara’s infection rate was comparatively low in December when vaccines first became available, the local situation has rapidly deteriorated.
Niagara now has a higher incidence of COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people than Toronto, and more Niagara residents with the virus have died in the last three-and-half weeks than in the preceding nine months.
There are 26 long-term care homes or retirement homes with COVID-19 outbreaks in Niagara. The region has a higher percentage of senior residents than the rest of Ontario, about 21 per cent, compared to the Ontario average of 16 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.
Hirji said Niagara’s pandemic situation is now on par with hard-hit regions like Peel and Windsor-Essex.
When asked Thursday about the Moderna shipment, Health ministry spokesman David Jensen did not answer The Standard’s questions.
“Niagara has received shipments of the vaccine, with more shipments expected each week thereafter,” Jensen said in an emailed statement.
Niagara has received a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, and immunizations started Wednesday.
Jensen did not reply to follow up questions about the Moderna shipment.
Niagara West Conservative MPP Sam Oosterhoff would not agree to an interview Thursday. In an emailed statement, Oosterhoff did not address the Moderna shipment but said he was glad to see Niagara received doses and would get more in coming weeks.
St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik said the Niagara Health letter is a strong showing of leadership from Niagara Health and a clear signal to the province that vaccine supply is a concern.
“When you look at the devastation and the devastating impact the virus is having in our long-term care homes and our hospitals, we can’t be left further down the list any more,” he said. “We need our fair share.”
Last week, Niagara’s 12 mayors and the regional chair sent a letter to Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Health and Solicitor General calling on the province to ensure the region’s frontline health care workers and residents have “equal and timely access” to vaccines compared to other areas of Ontario.
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati pointed to Niagara’s older demographics as a reason the region should get more vaccines, while acknowledging the limited overall supply.
Frank Campion, mayor of Welland, said there may be a good reason to divert the Moderna shipment, but leaving Niagara in the dark is unacceptable.
Campion expects his city council will pass a resolution supporting the hospital letter next week.
Niagara regional Chair Jim Bradley said the entire regional council “will be very supportive” of the doctors’ letter.
On Wednesday all three of Niagara’s NDP MPPs — Jeff Burch of Welland, Wayne Gates of Niagara Falls and Jennie Stevens of St. Catharines — urged the government to provide more vaccines to the region.
Burch, in a letter to Ford, said Niagara was being treated “unequally” and asked for the Moderna shipment to be restored.
Local MPs also voiced concern over the diverted shipment.
Niagara Falls Conservative MP Tony Baldinelli has already shared the Niagara Health letter with his provincial counterparts and shared it “with my shadow minister critic for health in our responsibilities in holding (the federal) government to account on the whole aspect of procuring these drugs.”
St. Catharines Liberal MP Chris Bittle said in an interview Thursday the Moderna shipment should not have been diverted “especially with Niagara numbers (of COVID-19 cases) on a per capita basis.”
He said the way the province has rolled out the initial allotment of vaccines “seems to be divorced from the reality on the ground in Niagara and that’s frustrating.”
Welland Liberal MP Vance Badawey said the situation is “absolutely unacceptable.”
“The federal government’s expectation is that the province distribute the vaccine in a fair and equitable manner,” said Badawey.“Here in Niagara, the ship has a hole in it and it’s starting to sink.”
-with files by Karena Walter, Dave Johnson, Kris Dube, Bill Sawchuk, Ray Spiteri and Allan Benner
Niagara’s politicians respond to the province diverting a shipment of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
Walter Sendizk, St. Catharines Mayor:
“When you look at the devastation and the devastating impact the virus is having in our long-term care homes and our hospitals, we can’t be left further down the list any more. We need our fair share.”
Jim Diodati, Niagara Falls Mayor:
“Doctors don’t often take a political stance, so you know when they do, it has to be a dire situation. The fact that they did, I think, speaks volumes. I’m very supportive of the doctors’ position.”
Frank Campion, Welland Mayor:
“I understand there can be reasons why it might be diverted. The reasoning put forward seems to be acceptable, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t be getting our fair share.”
Tony Baldinelli, Niagara Falls MP (Conservative):
“Niagara needs to be a priority. We need vaccines for our front-line medical staff, our vulnerable seniors, and other essential workers.”
Vance Badawey, Welland MP (Liberal):
“Here in Niagara, the ship has a hole in it and it’s starting to sink.”
Chris Bittle, St. Catharines MP (Liberal):
“I want to assure people that the federal government has procured more doses of vaccine than any other country in the world.”
Jeff Burch, Welland MPP (NDP):
“It remains unclear to me why Niagara is being treated unequally … it is disheartening that we have had to fight for the small amount of vaccines to date.”
Jim Bradley, Niagara Region chair:
“We are happy to get the Pfizer vaccine, and the Moderna vaccine seems to have been sent somewhere else. We have much older population than other areas of the province. Our numbers have recently gone up considerably. “