NDP asks auditor general to look at how Doug Ford government chose COVID-19 hot spots in Ontario

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is asking the auditor general to look at how the Ontario government chose certain postal code zones as COVID-19 hot spots.

Letter to Bonnie Lysyk comes after CBC News reported 5 zones less affected than others

NDP leader Andrea Horwath, left, asks Ontario Premier Doug Ford questions as they sit in the legislature at Queen's Park during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, May 12, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is asking the auditor general to look at how the Ontario government chose certain postal code zones as COVID-19 hot spots.

In a letter dated April 13, 2021, Horwath requests that Bonnie Lysyk review the data the government used to give priority access to COVID-19 vaccines in some neighbourhoods, saying she is concerned that the vaccine rollout may be driven by partisan considerations. 

"I am increasingly concerned that the rollout of these vaccines, which every Ontarian deserves, is becoming a political issue rather than a public health one. I am seeking your office's review of the data so that Ontarians are assured the vaccines are going where they are needed the most," Horwath writes.

On April 6, 2021, the government released a list of 114 postal code zones designated as hot spots and announced the start of targeted vaccinations in those areas for people aged 50 and up.

Horwath's letter follows a report by CBC News on Monday that five of those zones deemed hot spots have rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalization and death that are actually below provincial averages. The report was based on data compiled by ICES, a research institute focused on health issues in Ontario.

The hot-spot designation gives people in those areas higher priority for vaccinations, despite their lower-than-average pandemic burden. More than 175,000 people live in the five postal codes zones, four of them in ridings represented by Progressive Conservative MPPs.

CBC's review of the data identified seven postal code zones where COVID-19 has had a greater impact based on the province's official criteria, but are not classified as hot spots. All are located in ridings held by the opposition parties.

Selection of hot spot zones 'inequitable,' Horwath writes

The seven postal codes not designated as hot spots are in Ottawa, Niagara, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex.

"Last week, the Government of Ontario prioritized certain neighbourhoods for the unveiling of a mobile distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. However, I am concerned the selection of these hot-spot zones is inequitable and does not match the need in the community to target the highest rates of infection," Horwath writes.

Some neighbourhoods have been far less affected by the pandemic than other areas not designated as hot spots, data analysis by CBC News revealed.

Horwath, who represents Hamilton Centre, adds in the letter: "There are other identified postal code zones that have borne the brunt of COVID-19 but are not yet classified as priority areas for mobile vaccination. These areas have been severely impacted by the pandemic and yet are apparently not eligible for the new measures to increase vaccination."

NDP MPP raises issue in question period

NPD MPP Taras Natyshak, who represents Essex, raised the issue in question period on Monday, asking Health Minister Christine Elliott when the government will support hot spots not yet designated as such by the province.

"My question is, why is the premier still playing with matches when hot-spot communities like Hamilton are on the verge of becoming an inferno?" Natyshak asked.

Elliott replied: "In fact, the original hot spots were identified based on historical data and on transmission records and hospitalizations. We are working to deal with those hot spots right now, as well as the rest of Ontario. But saying that, we want to make sure that we can get all of the adults — first of all, over 50 in the hot-spot areas vaccinated in Toronto and Peel areas. There will be adults over age 18.

"But that doesn't mean that other hot spots won't be identified as we go further. If there are surges, there is a small reserve that we hold back to be able to deal with some of those surges and some of those additional hot spots, and we'll certainly deal with them readily as well."

With files from Mike Crawley and Muriel Draaisma