Quebec faces challenges in vaccine rollout but should still hit targets: expert

·3 min read

MONTREAL — Quebec's vaccine rollout is off to what may appear to be a slow start, but the province should still be able to meet its goal of vaccinating most citizens by the latter months of 2021, a supply-chain expert said Wednesday.

Saibal Ray, a professor at McGill's Bensadoun School of Retail Management who studies vaccine distribution, says Quebec's main challenge is the Pfizer vaccine manufacturer's insistence that provinces reserve half the doses they receive and use them as booster shots for those already vaccinated.

Ray said this requirement is why Quebec has only administered half the initial shipment it has obtained. "Even if supply is still a problem, we have not been able to vaccinate with the supply that we have received," he said in an interview.

Quebec is among the provinces contemplating whether to begin administering all the doses as they arrive, in order to protect more people from COVID-19 more quickly.

Health Minister Christian Dube said Tuesday the province had administered almost half of the initial 55,000 doses it received, and he said the government was debating whether to give the second half to new people or whether to hold it back for boosters. He said the decision would be made in consultation with the manufacturer and health experts.

On Wednesday, federal public health officials indicated that the need to hold back the second dose would be less pressing once deliveries become more regular. Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer said, "With deliveries that are more stable in the next weeks and months, I think it’s less of an issue."

The Moderna vaccine has already been approved by Health Canada and should arrive in Quebec in the coming days, Dube said Tuesday.

Despite a rollout that appears slow, Ray said the province can still meet its target of vaccinating most of Quebec's population by late 2021. Supply is likely to increase in the first months of the new year, especially as more vaccines are approved, he said.

Ray, however, said the province could still face challenges over the next months, such as winter weather, which he said could make it harder to distribute vaccines in northern regions. Cold temperatures could also discourage people, especially the frail and elderly, from travelling to clinics.

"It's difficult to go out for people, but I am thinking that vaccination is important enough that people will go out," he said.

The vaccination campaign is taking place as Quebec reported a record-high 2,511 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, as well as an 80-patient jump in hospitalizations. Another 41 people died from the virus, including 10 in the past 24 hours.

Dube noted on Twitter that all the province's pandemic-related indicators are up, including hospitalizations, which broke the 1,200 mark.

Quebec's premier, meanwhile, saluted the federal government's decision on Wednesday to require that returning international travellers obtain a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a plane home. The new measure, which had been one of the Quebec government's requests of Ottawa, is "very good news," Francois Legault said on his Twitter account.

Federal officials said they were also stepping efforts to ensure that Canadians returning from abroad follow the mandatory 14-day isolation period, and said they would deploy more rapid testing pilot projects at airports.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2020

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press