Yesterday Dr. Jeffrey Betcher, a critical-care physician, and Leah Sawatsky, a registered emergency room nurse, were the first people in Saskatchewan to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The shipment of the vaccine arrived Tuesday afternoon and the immunizations were given at Regina General at 6:00 pm. During a press conference, Wednesday morning Dr. Tania Diener, the lead medical health officer in the vaccination program, said of the vaccine rollout, “this is the start of a long road” but this shows “there can be an end to this.”
Dr. Betcher said that he was excited about the vaccine. As a critical-care physician he has seen close up the devastating effect this virus has had on families. Leah added that it is heartbreaking knowing that patients are going to have to go through this without their families at their side and having no real answer when they ask, “Am I going to die?” Getting vaccinated is important, she said, because she sees the virus and its impact every day and the virus does not discriminate. While Saskatchewan has not experienced the large numbers of active cases that other provinces have, that is largely a result of our population. The prairies have the highest rate per 100,000 people of anywhere in Canada. So, the beginning of the vaccination program is, in Dr. Betcher’s opinion, the beginning of the end of the pandemic.
The last time Saskatchewan saw a vaccination program anywhere close to this magnitude was the polio vaccination program of the late 1950’s and 60’s which eventually brought the polio virus under control in the early 1970’s. Dr. Diener cautioned that it will take a long time to immunize the people of the province, as the first phase of vaccine rollout will be directed towards targeted groups and it will not be until Phase 2 that the general population will be able to get vaccinated. She went on to say that it will be important to maintain vigilance and adhere to the public health orders and protective measures that have been taken to this point. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two doses and according to Diener seven days after the booster, 95% immunity will be achieved. She noted that it will be important to dispel myths and misconceptions about the vaccine in order to encourage a minimum of 70% of the population of the province to get vaccinated. For example, some people are expressing concern and hesitancy about the vaccine because of ongoing commentary on social media about the safety of a vaccine that was developed and approved in less time than even first trials are accomplished regularly. Health officials at all levels will need to counter that with fact and assurances that the same safety standards were adhered to with this vaccine, and the speed is a direct result of the phenomenal amount of physical and financial resources that were available.
The role of the pilot vaccination project was to identify any issues that might exist with the distribution of the Pfizer vaccine since it has very strict transportation and storage criteria. Some of the questions they will be considering, Dr. Diener relayed, relate to the logistics of keeping the vaccine viable, how to move it from its ultra-cold storage to where the vaccinations will be administered, how many times can the freezer and the packages be opened and still maintain the correct temperature, how often will the dry ice need to be replaced, and after reconstitution how long it is viable. These are all things that will be discovered through the pilot which will then be relayed to other locations where Phase 1 will be carried out.
The whole learning process that health officials are going through currently with the Pfizer vaccine, will need to be repeated with the Moderna vaccine once it is approved. The two vaccines will have different handling procedures and no one wants to waste any doses through a mishandling error. Dr. Betcher and nurse Leah Sawatsky are both feeling fine and encourage everyone to get the vaccine when it becomes available.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder