Pharmacists and large employers join Quebec's COVID-19 vaccination effort

·4 min read
Pharmacists and large employers join Quebec's COVID-19 vaccination effort
A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic set up in Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A nurse administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic set up in Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The math is simple, the challenge is not.

Quebec plans to dole out 12 million doses of the various COVID-19 vaccines before Labour Day, which is 26 weeks away. That means an average of 450,000 doses per week. In the seven days ending Thursday, it managed 85,000 or so.

The Health Ministry is ramping up its efforts by opening vaccination centres across the province, but also by enlisting help from the private sector.

On Wednesday, the province inked a deal in principle to allow pharmacists to inject people, as early as mid-March or as late as mid-April, depending on deliveries.

"From our experience from the flu vaccination, we know pharmacies can, for an extended period of time, give 100,000 doses of vaccines per week," said Pierre-Marc Gervais, the senior director of pharmaceutical services for the Association Québécoise des pharmaciens propriétaires.

"That's the minimum, and in some weeks we gave 140,000 doses of flu vaccines, so that's a lot of immunizations."

So far, 1,500 pharmacies have signaled their desire to participate. More crucially, there are 3,000 registered pharmacists in Quebec who are able to do the injecting, in addition to the nurses who typically provide immunization services in community pharmacies.

Vaccine logistics are about to become simpler

That's roughly the number of qualified staff the public health system currently has dedicated to the task. The expectation is they will be able to crank out 120,000 or so vaccines per week on average, in April.

That's when the vaccine bottleneck will be eased completely, and the trickle turns into a firehose.

The federal government's decision on Friday to approve Astra-Zeneca/Oxford University vaccine, as well as an Indian-manufactured version of it, should help simplify the logistics somewhat. That vaccine, and the candidates proposed by Novavax, Johnson and Johnson, and others, are somewhat less finicky than the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

They don't need to be frozen, and in Johnson and Johnson's case, only require a single dose.

"It's a huge boost if you wanted to roll this out quickly," Dr. Matthew Oughton, an epidemiologist at McGill University and the Jewish General Hospital, told CBC News Network about the Astra-Zeneca approval.

Gervais said there are also hopeful signs regarding the mRNA shots, pointing to a U.S. finding this week that suggests the Pfizer-BioNTech product may not need to be super-frozen after all.

The Canadian government has firm orders for about 300 million doses of seven different vaccines and options to buy millions more, with deliveries set to ramp up meaningfully in April and May. Quebec should have no trouble getting its 12 million.

But the public vaccination centres and pharmacies may still not be able to hit the pace required to meet the fall target.

That's where the province's large employers come in.

Véronique Proulx, CEO of the association representing Quebec's manufacturers and exporters, said her group's 23,000 members (and their 475,000 employees) are eager to help.

"We need to get out of this [pandemic] situation as quickly as possible ... they're more than happy to raise their hands," she said.

Proulx was part of a delegation of business leaders that visited an as-yet unopened vaccination centre in Brossard on Friday with provincial vaccine czar Daniel Paré, and she was struck by the familiarity of the environment.

"It's very similar to a small manufacturing line," she said, adding "we should be able to replicate it."

Proulx added there are roughly 1,000 manufacturing businesses dotted across Quebec that have more than 100 employees, and that many have the large, open spaces to accommodate vaccination stations. All they'll need is a little training and financial support from the province to set them up.

Employee vaccination blitzes

Karl Blackburn, the CEO of the Conseil du patronat, struck a similar chord, saying there is a "big interest" among the 70,000 employers his group represents in helping the effort, particularly between June and September.

Blackburn estimates the summer vaccination peak could reach a million people per week, and that companies large and small could help the effort either by holding weekend vaccination blitzes or more sustained campaigns for employees, their families and the general public.

He offered an illustration of how it might work with Premier Tech, a Rivière-du-Loup firm that works in the food and automation sectors. The company employs about 1,600 people.

"If you add their families and their suppliers and the public in that specific area, it means more than 10,000 people could be vaccinated," he said, adding he's had firm expressions of interest for large companies with multiple facilities in the province like Rio Tinto, Ubisoft and CAE.