The former head of the Canadian military will lead Ontario’s charge to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, the Star has learned.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier has been enlisted to chair the province’s new task force on the vaccine.

Hillier, who was chief of the defence staff of the Canadian Armed Forces from 2005 to 2008, was personally tapped by Premier Doug Ford, who will formally announce the appointment Monday.

“This is a military operation in the sense that the moment the vaccine hits our warehouses we want it deployed where it is most needed,” a senior government official said Sunday.

The insider, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, said Hillier’s COVID-19 vaccine task force will also include “doctors, scientists, logistical experts and Indigenous leaders.”

Between January and March, Ontario will receive 1.6 million doses of Pfizer’s new vaccine and 800,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine.

Each vaccine requires two shots, meaning Ontario’s initial allotment of 2.4 million doses will be dispensed to 1.2 million people in a province with a population of 14.5 million.

The priority for the first wave of vaccination will be front-line health-care workers, such as doctors and nurses, and long-term care workers in nursing homes, scene of two-thirds of Ontario’s 3,500 COVID-19 deaths.

“We want to vaccinate the most vulnerable first,” said the official, adding Ontario is hoping to receive additional doses of the vaccine from Ottawa as soon as possible.

The federal government’s national operations centre is working closely with the provinces to ensure the vaccines are distributed efficiently and equitably.

With countries around the world vying for vaccine supplies, Ottawa — which has so far purchased 20 million doses of each of the Pfizer and Moderna serums — is coordinating the distribution across Canada.

Beyond those 40 million doses, Ottawa also has contracts for potential vaccines from five other pharmaceutical companies.

Hillier’s expertise overseeing large and complicated operations will be required due to the storage challenges surrounding vaccines that must be kept at very low temperatures before being dispensed.

“Ultra-cold freezer units are needed. There is a massive logistical job that is already under way,” the insider said.

Ontario’s vaccination plan comes as Toronto and Peel Region began a 28-day lockdown on Monday amid rising infections, forcing many businesses to close.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose officials are in constant contact with their provincial counterparts, has noted there are “many ongoing preliminary discussions around our plan to unfold, to roll out vaccines and deliver them across the country.”

Trudeau’s government has shortlisted four companies that specialize in providing logistics services.

As well, Ottawa has bought 126 special freezers — made by Panasonic and Thermal Scientific — to supplement existing federal capacity to store vaccine doses once Health Canada approves the medications.

Of those 126 freezers, 26 are “ultra-cold” and can store vaccines at minus 80C with the other 100 good to minus 20C.

Overall, there is now freezer capacity for 33.5 million doses in Canada.

The outspoken Hillier was always popular with Canadians troops because of his morale-boosting ability to slash through bureaucratic red tape to secure modernized equipment for the forces.

He is well regarded at Queen’s Park for helping Ford and Heritage Minister Lisa MacLeod with the new memorial to commemorate the 158 Canadian Armed Forces personnel killed in the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014.

That monument, which complements the 2006 veterans’ memorial on the front lawn of the legislature, was unveiled two weeks ago on Remembrance Day.

Loading…

Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…

Hillier led the consultation to select the design, which boasts a zigzagging bronze ribbon to symbolize the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan.

From certain angles, the memorial, which includes a stone from an inukshuk dedicated to the fallen erected by Canadian soldiers at the Kandahar air field, recalls the rubble of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York.

The Afghan war was sparked by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack that destroyed the towers.

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

This content was originally published here.