TORONTO - Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews was urging people across the province Wednesday to take their time coming out to get the H1N1 flu shot now that it's being made available to anyone over the age of six months.
But she did stress that everyone should get their shot.
Ontario and Manitoba have announced that clinics all over those provinces were throwing their doors open to the general public regardless of their medical condition.
Calling the move "a big step forward," Matthews said officials were able to extend the vaccination to everyone earlier than expected because they were now confident there will be enough vaccine.
"I will get my flu shot as soon as possible, and I urge everyone to do so as well," Matthews said.
She said the immunization campaign, which has been criticized as disorganized and slow, is the largest ever held in Ontario, with 2.5 million people vaccinated in just three weeks.
"Never before have we immunized so many people in so short a period of time," Matthews said.
Dr. Arlene King, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, joined Matthews in encouraging people to get their shot.
"Immunization is the best defence Ontarians have against the H1N1 flu," said King.
"It is safe and effective. I urge everyone to get their flu shot now. We will have enough H1N1 vaccine for everyone who needs and wants it."
King said anyone who thinks the flu has peaked is speculating and that should not deter people from getting the vaccine.
"We, in fact, would expect this virus to be with us for quite a time to come," King said.
"It is not too late to be immunized...We have flu activity going on in the entire North American hemisphere. People move all over the province, all over the country, all over the whole Northern hemisphere and they need to be protected," said King.
Lineups in Toronto began swelling Wednesday afternoon. Residents there had been told Tuesday that the general public could get the shot when clinics opened at 1 p.m.
Waiting in line at the mid-town North Toronto Memorial Community Centre, Patricia Lewis was relieved to be able to get the shot before she leaves on a trip to Mexico, where the virus was first reported.
"I'm happy to get it because I'm going to Mexico a week Friday and I don't want to be sick down there," she said.
King announced that 76 people have died from swine flu in Ontario since April.
That's five more deaths than were known Tuesday.
Matthews said the province has received more than four million doses of vaccine to date and will receive at least another 500,000 doses next week.
She noted the public can now receive the vaccine in more than 100 public health unit clinics and more than 4,200 doctors' offices.
Despite images of long lineups at clinics flashed across the province, nearly half of the doses administered so far have been in physicians' offices.
Previous weeks have seen vaccinations limited to priority groups such as health-care workers, pregnant women, children and people with underlying medical conditions.
But this week at least 17 health units in the province began offering the H1N1 vaccine to the general public.
Toronto residents who lined up Wednesday expressed relief at finally being able to get their shots.
Agathat Nakedde, a mother of two who waited in line at the Metro Hall clinic, said she has been worried for the health of her children.
"I was feeling really bad because I have my two little girls and I'm thinking what if I get it and I give it to them," Nakedde said. "I was nervous and I was waiting for this day."
Health-care workers across the province were bracing to give out hundreds of thousands of shots this week and next if needed.
At Toronto's Metro Hall clinic alone, staff were prepared to give 2,000 shots a day.
"I don't think there will be a problem...We're ready, our clinic managers are ready, our clinic staff are ready, we have systems in place, we have line management systems," said Toronto public health spokeswoman Susan Sperling.
"We have enough doses, we have enough capacity to handle all of these."
Premier Dalton McGuinty also said Wednesday that he plans to get the vaccine this week. But he said he's not sure if he'll do it in front of cameras, joking that he might faint.
Matthews thanked those not in the priority groups previously vaccinated for waiting to get the vaccine.
"To the millions of Ontarians who waited their turn to get the vaccine, I can only say thank you for being so patient," Matthews said.
"If a society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members, then your actions proved just how well this province measures up."
Officials have pointed out that flu activity continues to be high in the province - more than double that seen at the peak of past regular flu seasons.
"It's going to last all winter. We are just at the beginning here," Matthews warned.
Quebec's chief public health officer questioned Ontario's move to begin vaccinating the general population.
"In a certain sense, there are people who are much less at risk who will get it (the vaccination) first, passing ahead of people who are more at risk," Dr. Alain Poirier said Wednesday.
Quebec will not change its plans and will continue inoculating targeted groups, Poirier added.