Planners keep focus on priority groups as vaccine rollout hits bumpy ground

·5 min read

New Brunswick's health minister says planning for COVID-19 vaccinations is becoming more of a challenge with ever-shifting forecasts of how much vaccine the province will receive.

Dorothy Shephard says that with numbers constantly changing, all the province can do for now is continue to focus on high-priority groups.

"It's a fine balance, how this is going to go," Shephard says. "But for now, for the first quarter, we're going to stick with our priority groups that we have and we're going to get as much of them done as possible."

New Brunswick's plan is to vaccinate health-care workers and vulnerable populations in the first quarter of 2021, ending March 31.

"Anyone that doesn't get done in those priority groups is going to have to carry over to prioritize in Q2," Shephard says.

Public Health officials have been adjusting plans as the two companies who make vaccines approved for Canada, Pfizer and Moderna, reduce their shipment forecasts for February.

Delivery schedules a moving target

The federal government says the companies have pledged to scale up deliveries in time to still hit their first-quarter shipment goals but Shephard says she's not sure how much to rely on those assurances.

"I get that there are going to be hurdles, but we don't know now how these hurdles are really going to carry forward," Shephard says.

"They change from one week to the next, and we don't know that what we were told this week isn't going to change for next week either. All we can do is hope that the change means they're going to be able to give us more than they told us."

CBC News
CBC News

Province updates its vaccination numbers

The province updated its vaccination numbers Monday. More than 1,600 health-care and long-term care workers received their second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last week, meaning they are now fully immunized.

As well, the number of fully immunized people is up from 2,839 a week ago to 4,460 now.

More people in long-term care homes received their first doses of Moderna as of Saturday, bringing the number of New Brunswickers who have received a single dose to 8,357.

On top of those numbers, Public Health began vaccinating residents and staff of the Manoir Belle Vue in Edmundston on Sunday.

The nursing home has been hit by 55 cases of COVID-19. The Belle Vue vaccinations will show up in next week's update.

While a single dose is not enough to fully immunize someone, it does make them less susceptible to symptoms about two weeks after the first shot.

I get that there are going to be hurdles, but we don't know now how these hurdles are going to carry forward. They change from one week to the next . . . - Health Minister Dorothy Shephard

According to the delivery schedule on the federal government website, the province will receive 3,200 doses of Moderna this week, down from the initial delivery schedule of 4,300 doses.

Ottawa still hasn't provided a new delivery schedule for Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, but Shephard says New Brunswick has been told it will receive 975 this week, 6,825 doses the week of Feb. 15, and another 7,800 doses the week of Feb. 22.

The province was told last week it will have 72,150 Pfizer doses by the end of March, down from an initial expectation of 81,900. The company's plant in Belgium is being upgraded to produce more vaccine but it means a temporary slowdown in production.

N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services
N.W.T. Department of Health and Social Services

Push is on to extract six doses from vials

While New Brunswick received no new doses of vaccine last week, it was able to use Pfizer doses it had set aside earlier to provide second booster shots to health workers.

Last week, federal officials said it will still be possible to hit the target of four million Pfizer doses nation-wide by the end of March if regulators approve the company's proposal to get six doses out of every vial of vaccine instead of five.

Being able to reliably extract a sixth dose from each vial requires a more precise type of syringe, which is now on order.

"Without those specific kind of syringes, we can't get to that sixth dose," Shephard says, adding that so far it's only happened in about 10 per cent of New Brunswick vials.

Ottawa has ordered a large quantity of the syringes and New Brunswick should receive its share next week, she says.

With vaccine distributed per capita, the four million Pfizer doses and two million Moderna doses promised to Canada by the end of March would translate into enough vaccine to immunize about 60,000 New Brunswickers.

Holding back second dose was a good call: Shephard

High-risk groups and seniors over the age of 65 are supposed to be vaccinated between April and June and the rest of the population during the summer and into the fall.

Given the dip in vaccine supply this month, Shephard says she's glad New Brunswick opted to hold back Pfizer stock a month ago for second doses, rather than give first doses to more people and gamble that future deliveries would arrive as scheduled.

The second booster shot needs to be given within a fixed period of time for maximum effectiveness.

"This [delay] is exactly what we feared would happenm," Shephard says.

"It's exactly why we kept the second doses back. Other provinces didn't do that and now they're worried about that timeline."