Saskatchewan pharmacists say they don't have enough staff to handle a growing demand for third COVID-19 vaccine doses, as more people become eligible on Monday.
Premier Scott Moe announced Thursday that the province's COVID-19 booster shot program is expanding in the face of the threat from the Omicron coronavirus variant.
As of Monday, the province will open booster doses to everyone 18 and older, and cut the interval required between second and third doses from five months to three.
Brian Gray, a pharmacist and store manager at Lakeshore Pharmacy in Regina, said he has been inundated with calls in recent days from people who want to get a third dose.
Previously, boosters were available to people aged 50 and older, all adults in northern and First Nations communities, and people with specific medical conditions.
Gray says his pharmacy was able to keep up with administering vaccines when fewer people were eligible.
"We had extra people able to come in to help out. But now with the increase, the number of phone calls, we're just unable to keep up anymore," he said.
The pharmacy can give about 60 doses a week — not nearly enough to keep up with the demand, said Gray.
"I've got 100 people [who] just showed up in the last 24 hours on my waiting list," he said, adding he already has a two-week waiting list.
"So it's a bit overwhelming right now."
Vaccine supply not a problem: pharmacist
Jaclyn Katelnikoff, pharmacist at Saskatoon Family Pharmacy, said vaccine supply is not a problem.
With the expanded eligibility for booster shots, the government is allowing pharmacies to increase their vaccine orders for the first time, she said.
Usually, pharmacies have to wait two weeks to increase the amount they can order. Katelnikoff said she was able to increase the capacity for next week.
"We set our target at 150 per week, which doesn't sound like a lot, but in the last couple of weeks we've only been doing 30," she said.
Her pharmacy is also planning to administer pediatric vaccines starting next week.
Katelnikoff said pharmacies can order as many vaccines as they can fit into their day, but it will be a "balancing act" given the staffing strain.
"I think the biggest challenge that pharmacies have to manage is that we can't sacrifice the rest of our role, which is safe medication distribution. We can't put that in jeopardy."
Staffing challenges are also compounded by pharmacists experiencing burnout and fatigue due to the pandemic, according to Michael Fougere, CEO of the Pharmacy Association of Saskatchewan.
"Having said that … pharmacists are professional. They're going to do the work they've got to do, but they certainly do express their concern about their own capacity to do that," Fougere said.
"They'll work as quickly as they can to make sure people are protected."
Saskatchewan has 400,000 booster doses available and more are expected to arrive from the federal government in the weeks ahead.
Premier Moe said the Saskatchewan Health Authority's vaccination capacity remains "significant," but said the province can't return to mass clinics without shutting down other health-care services.