Provinces to boost vaccination efforts as Pfizer deliveries expected to ramp up

·4 min read

The Ontario government said Monday it is developing a web portal for booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments, a sign of provinces preparing to ramp up vaccination efforts as manufacturer Pfizer-BioNTech increases deliveries.

In Quebec, Health Minister Christian Dube tweeted Monday the province expects more than 90,000 Pfizer vaccines this week, which will allow it to "increase the rhythm" of vaccination, particularly in private seniors homes.

The federal government said that after a month-long slowdown as Pfizer expanded it plant in Belgium, it expects to receive weekly shipments of more than 400,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine beginning this week and lasting at least until early April.

The schedule, which was published on the Public Health Agency of Canada's website, specifies that the numbers are based on the understanding that there are six shots per vial, rather than five as originally calculated.

That number represents a significant jump in vaccine shipments to Canada, which has received a total of about 928,200 Pfizer doses since December.

Ontario's vaccine task force told regional public health officers in a memo on Sunday that it was expanding its focus from long-term care homes in the coming weeks, with staff and essential caregivers in long-term care homes, top priority health-care workers and Indigenous adults in remote and higher risk communities among the next in line.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch says a more predictable delivery schedule will make it easier for provinces to plan vaccine rollouts.

The University of Toronto expert, who sits on the province's vaccine task force, said in an interview that while the shipment delays have given the provinces time to fine-tune their plans, it remains to be seen whether they will carry them out smoothly, especially when it comes to the more complex operation of vaccinating the general population.

"It all looks really, really good on paper, but it's another thing to actually operationalize this," he said.

The community phase of the rollout will include figuring out how to prioritize various groups, including different age cohorts, racialized and low-income communities, essential workers and those with underlying health conditions, he said.

Bogoch said the recent declines in cases and hospitalizations across the country are likely due to public health measures more than vaccination. However, he said death rates should soon begin to fall now that almost all long-term care residents across the country have received at least one dose of vaccine.

The new deliveries will be welcomed by provinces and territories, which have administered the vast majority of the vaccines received to date. They will also likely ease some of the pressure on the federal Liberal government, which has been accused of mismanaging what amounts to the largest mass-vaccination effort in Canadian history.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week acknowledged the struggle with deliveries, but said things will get better in the weeks ahead, and even better in April, when Canada is expecting as many as one million doses a week.

"We're approaching something we're calling the big lift," he said Thursday in a virtual roundtable with nurses and doctors from around Canada.

Yet the problems aren't entirely over. Moderna — the other company whose vaccine has been approved for use in Canada so far — has confirmed its next shipment on Feb. 22 will be only 168,000 doses, two-thirds of what had been promised.

Moderna, which delivers once every three weeks, shipped 180,000 doses last week — 80 per cent of the promised amount.

In addition, Pfizer's deliveries will only meet the promised number of doses if medical professionals can adjust to extracting six doses from every vial.

Getting that sixth dose requires the use of a low dead-volume syringe, which traps less vaccine in the needle and syringe after an injection. Canada has now ordered 72 million of those syringes, and two million were delivered last week.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander overseeing Canada's vaccine distribution, has said those were being shipped to the provinces to be ready for Monday, though no provinces reported receiving any as of Thursday.

Also Monday, in a federal bid to stop the entry of contagious variants into the country, new rules went into effect for travellers crossing from the U.S. into Canada at land border points, with exceptions for essential travellers.

People driving into the country must now provide either proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test within the previous 72 hours or proof that they were infected with COVID-19 in the 14 to 90 days before arrival. That period is considered sufficient to have recovered but not long enough for immunity to have waned.

Other travel restrictions come into effect Feb. 22, including a requirement for travellers at land borders to take COVID-19 tests, and a mandatory three-day hotel quarantine for returning airline passengers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2021.

Morgan Lowrie and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press