New Brunswick pharmacists are keeping waiting lists and preparing for strong demand once doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrive this week.
Residents 85 and older are currently eligible to make appointments to get the shot as early as Wednesday.
Paul Bowman, co-owner of Bowman's Pharmasave in Fredericton, said there's been significant interest after the government announced pharmacies would help.
"The calls started coming in pretty thick and fast," he said.
Under the province's updated vaccination plan, pharmacies will be administering most priority age groups. More than 200 locations across the province are expected to participate in the rollout.
Bowman's Pharmasave is scheduled to receive an initial shipment of Moderna vaccine on Wednesday and is waiting until it arrives to book appointments. For now, it's creating a waiting list and will contact customers once slots are available.
Most locations in New Brunswick are also receiving the Moderna version of the shot, with some in the Moncton area getting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The doses will be stored in vaccine fridges before use to follow temperature requirements.
Bowman said there are logistical challenges compared to providing flu shots, which can be offered on a walk-in basis.
"With the Moderna vaccine you've only got six hours from the time you take that first dose out to use the other nine," he said.
In order to book appointments at the Pharmasave, people in the 85-and-older age group can stop at the store or go online to complete a consent form. They will be contacted directly to schedule an appointment.
"The biggest threat is vaccine-hesitancy and people not getting the vaccine, so we're happy to be involved and do our part in getting New Brunswickers vaccinated as quickly as possible," Bowman said.
People from other age groups have also been calling to ask when they can book appointments.
Public Health plans to make an announcement once the next age group, people between 80 to 84, becomes eligible later this month.
Pharmacies are also tasked with vaccinating rotational workers, truckers and cross-border commuters.
Plan to prevent waste
Harrisville Pharmacy in Moncton is also preparing to receive shipments of Moderna vaccine, expected to arrive on March 23.
Owner Andrew Drover said the customers he's hearing from are eager to get the shot.
"There hasn't really been any hesitancy," he said.
The pharmacy is the newest in the province and opened in December. Since the customer base is still growing, demand has been lower than other locations in the city.
Drover said a few people in their early 80s — outside the initial age group — have called to inquire about appointments. He's added them to a waiting list to be contacted when the next age group is up.
To prevent waste, there's a plan in place in the event a cancelled appointment results in a leftover dose.
"Someone who is, like, 83 years old, I can contact them to come in rather than lose that dose," he said.
Harrisville Pharmacy is currently taking appointments by phone and online. The first clinic will be held on March 24.
Drover said he's looking forward to administering the vaccine.
"I'm happy to be able to help and hopefully there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
'Let's get it done'
At the two Jean Coutu pharmacies in Dieppe, the phones began ringing shortly after the government announced pharmacies would receive the vaccine.
Dennis Abud owns both locations and is encouraging people to turn to the website instead to book appointments. The pharmacist received his first shot on Friday in preparation for this week.
"We're really trying to tell people, look it's not your turn right now — call us when it's your turn," he said.
Abud said pharmacies are ready for mass vaccination efforts after years of offering flu shots. New Brunswick administered a higher number of shots this year, in response to a surge in demand this fall.
Pharmacists in the province administered nearly 150,000 doses of the flu vaccine in October and November alone.
The COVID-19 vaccine is more fragile than the flu shot and needs to be mixed, making preparation complicated. Doses also cannot be transferred between pharmacies due to handling and storage requirements.
Abud, who has been a pharmacist for 20 years, said he's excited to be part of the rollout and confident New Brunswick will meet its target. Public Health aims to offer a first dose to every resident who wants one by the end of June.
"We're like racehorses stuck in the stall. Let's get it done," he said.