Vaccine goals still on track despite Pfizer shipment delays, health minister says

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New Brunswick's health minister says she believes the province can stay on track with its vaccination goals for the first quarter of 2021 despite a disruption in the supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine starting this week.

Dorothy Shephard says she's hopeful the federal government is right when it says Pfizer will "ramp up" shipments of its COVID-19 vaccine in March so that supplies catch up and provinces can still hit their targets.

But in the meantime the province will have to adjust its roll-out plans for February to deal with the reduction in shipments, which includes no new Pfizer vaccine for Canada this week.

"We can't issue vaccines if we don't have the vaccine to release," Shepherd said Monday. "Absolutely we are making those changes." She did not provide details of what those changes would be.

She also added: "We have been assured that the shipments will be ramped up in March so that we should be able to meet our planned vaccination rollout for [the first quarter] in the month of March. … So I expect March is going to be very busy."

As of Monday, New Brunswick had received 21,675 vaccine doses, including a shipment of 3,900 doses from Pfizer last Friday.

'Almost easier than the flu shot'

One of those doses went into the arm of family physician Dr. Marc-André Doucet at a clinic at the Chaleur Regional Hospital in Bathurst on Saturday.

"There was no wait," Doucet said. "Everything was smooth sailing.

"We're privileged to be among the first to have it. Obviously I think we're also exposed to the risk, so it makes sense."

He said he suffered no side effects from the dose he received Saturday, his first. "It's actually almost easier than the flu shot I get every year."

On Monday, Ontario said it would postpone shots to some health care workers in February because of the Pfizer delays, so that long-term care residents at greater risk could be vaccinated with the supply the province has.

Shephard said in New Brunswick, another vaccine from Moderna is being used for long-term care residents so that won't be affected by the Pfizer delay.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics for the Public Health Agency of Canada, recently said there would be no Pfizer deliveries to Canada this week and that shipments would reduced by up to 50 per cent over four weeks.

New Brunswick had been due to receive 35,100 Pfizer doses between now and the end of February. The federal government's delivery schedule website hasn't been updated with new numbers for Pfizer.

The company is upgrading its plant in Belgium to manufacture even more doses this year than originally planned, but that means slowing production temporarily.

The site shows New Brunswick is still expected to receive 4,300 doses of Moderna's vaccine next week and another 4,700 doses in the final week of February.

The province has also been holding back 7,418 doses to ensure there are enough second shots for everyone who has had a first one.

Shephard said 1,300 people were vaccinated at 10 long-term care facilities last week, as well as 1,950 health-care workers at hospitals in Bathurst, Edmundston, Saint John and Fredericton.

20 long-term care facilities to get Moderna vaccine

Another 750 people at 20 long-term care facilities will get doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, along with 1,600 health-care workers who will get their second dose.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots to be fully effective. So far 14,257 New Brunswickers have received at least one shot and 2,839 have had both doses and are considered fully immunized.

Shephard said the province could go faster if it had more supply.

"It continues to not be a matter of our ability to vaccinate, but that we do not have the vaccine in sufficient quantities yet."

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Last week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the CEO of Pfizer has personally assured him that shipments would pick up again and catch up with the original shipment schedule by the end of March.

"That has yet to be seen," Shephard said. "We can only hope that is what will happen."

Anyone who wants vaccine could get it by fall

In December, the federal government said there would be enough Pfizer vaccine to immunize three million Canadians by the end of March. With per capita distribution that would mean 60,000 New Brunswickers.

The province hopes that by fall any New Brunswicker who wants the vaccine will have had the chance to get it.

"Our goal is to get to September and be where we want to be," Shephard said. "These kinds of adjustments have to be made, we have to work with them, and we will continue to work with them."