Sask. to receive 180,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses in early 2021: health minister

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The provincial government says 180,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines purchased by the federal government have been allocated to Saskatchewan.

Health Minister Paul Merriman made the announcement at a news conference in Regina Thursday.

"This pandemic will only end when we have a widespread distribution of a safe and effective vaccine," Merriman said.

The minister said the vaccine will be distributed on a priority basis. He expects seniors and front-line workers to receive the vaccine first.

"I look forward to the day when we have most of our province vaccinated but that's going to take some time," Merriman said.

Saskatchewan Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said he expects the first doses to be available in January and February 2021.

"We don't know the details of how much vaccine will be available beyond February, but it will be coming in smaller amounts," said Shahab.

"We hope that there will be a national approach of prioritization about who should get the vaccine first."

As you start getting into other groups — people with chronic medical conditions, for example — that's when you can start involving other health-care providers. - Dr. Cory Neudorf, U of S epidemiology professor

Shahab said distribution of the vaccine would likely continue throughout the year.

The 180,000 doses are among six million procured by the federal government, according to the Saskatchewan government. Merriman said there are four million of the Pfizer vaccine doses and two million of the Moderna vaccine.

Provincial officials in Alberta are expecting to receive 680,000 doses in early 2021, while Ontario is expecting 2.4 million.

Vaccine storage presents 'logistical challenges'

A key component of the Pfizer vaccine is that it has to be stored at –70 C.

"Getting those vaccines from an airport tarmac or a port to Canadians right across the country is a significant logistical challenge," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The federal government is focused on that challenge, he said, "and working … ardently to be able to make sure that as vaccines arrive, they are getting out to the most vulnerable and the people who need it on a priority basis."

According to Public Services and Procurement Canada, the federal government has purchased 26 freezers that can maintain temperatures of –80 C. It also has purchased 100 freezers that can maintain a temperature of –20 C.

More vaccine options likely coming

Dr. Cory Neudorf, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, said the province is in discussions with the federal government about the best approach.

"They can ship everything centrally and then distribute it out from there, or the federal government could decide with the provinces how many doses are going to each area and have the manufacturers ship … the appropriate amounts" directly, said Neudorf.

Decisions will also need to be made about how to deliver the vaccine to the public, he said.

Saskatchewan has handled mass immunization campaigns in the past, said Neudorf, including for meningococcal and H1N1 influenza campaigns.

Those campaigns may inform the approach to COVID-19 immunization, but will need to be adapted to avoid bringing large crowds together into mass clinics, he said.

Neudorf suspects physicians will be involved in decisions about who gets the vaccine after the first round of doses for seniors and health-care workers.

Saskatoon Health Region
Saskatoon Health Region

"As you start getting into other groups — people with chronic medical conditions, for example — that's when you can start involving other health-care providers, like specialists and family doctors, who know their patients and know who would be most in need of of the vaccine," said Neudorf.

With more vaccines still being developed, he said more vaccine options could be approved by the time vaccination becomes available to the general public.

"Some of the vaccines that are being developed that are a little further down the pipe are being developed with a little more established technology that has a higher likelihood of getting long-term immunity as well," said Neudorf.

"So it may be that we end up with some vaccines that we take now to get this pandemic under control, and then a second vaccine might be needed later to induce longer-term immunity."

He said there are ongoing studies to examine the length of immunity created by front-running vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna.