An Edmonton doctor sparked anger online and denials from the Albertan government after alleging that staff administering COVID-19 vaccines have been instructed to throw out doses that go unused at the end of each day.
“Alberta Health has directed staff to WASTE the vaccine rather than administer to people not in phase 1a of the rollout. Yet another massive failure in our #COVID19AB response,” wrote Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a physician at Misericordia Community Hospital in Edmonton, on Twitter Monday night.
Public health officials from Alberta Health Services and the provincial government denied these allegations, saying only a small number of doses had to be thrown out due to unavoidable circumstances. Ladha said she learned of the allegation from other healthcare workers.
Ladha could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
Her statements, however, resonated with thousands of people online as Canada’s vaccine rollout has been beleaguered by a slow start, with its per capita vaccinations well behind other countries, such as the United States, the U.K., and Israel. On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was frustrated with the pace of the rollout.
"I think Canadians, including me, are frustrated to see vaccines in freezers and not in people's arms,” Trudeau said.
Despite being one of the first countries to approve the COVID-19 vaccines and having received more than 400,000 doses, Canada had administered fewer than 150,000 shots as of Tuesday.
Alberta Minister of Health Tyler Shandro and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw issued a statement claiming that misinformation surrounding vaccine wastage has been circulating online roughly 24 hours after Ladha’s allegation.
The statement says small amounts of COVID-19 vaccine going to waste is “unavoidable”, as doses have to be thawed and prepared ahead of time for pre-scheduled appointments that are overbooked “to ensure that enough health-care workers are always in line.”
When there are no more booked appointments left, the ministry says those who are administering the vaccines can then use thawed doses to vaccinate each other, as the doses cannot be refrozen or put in a fridge.
But some doses still go to waste, and the ministry says this is akin to what happens in all large-scale immunization programs.
“While this is upsetting, it is unavoidable. It is also extremely limited thanks to the processes in place ... wastage in the COVID-19 vaccine program is at 0.3 per cent, and typical immunization programs can see wastage around six per cent,” reads the statement.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) stats say 86 doses out of the 26,216 vaccine doses administered have been thrown away.
“AHS is optimizing the number of appointments to minimize any wastage due to client factors, including overbooking at a minimal fraction of appointments to account for no shows while still adhering to physical distancing and cleaning time between immunizations,” the agency said on Twitter Tuesday morning.
“Any additional dosages available at site at the end of the shift are given to immunizers on site as our second line of defense against wastage.”
Alberta is not the only jurisdiction to come under fire for wasting its limited COVID-19 vaccine doses.
In Manitoba, the province’s immunization campaign got off to a rocky start in December after a small amount of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine had to be thrown out due to people cancelling their appointments.
Some doses of the Moderna vaccine have also been thrown out in places like Brockton, Mass., U.S., after people failed to show up for their immunizations. Both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines have a six-hour window in which they can be thawed, prepared with a diluent, and administered before going bad.
Overbooking is just one reason why health officials around the world are reporting COVID-19 vaccine doses gone to waste.
The Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be stored in ultra-cold freezers, is another issue.
Authorities in New Mexico had to throw out 75 doses of the vaccine last month after concerns that they may have overheated during transportation.
The lack of a centralized system of distribution in the U.S. also means millions of doses will expire at the end of January—even when kept in the deep freezers—before they can be administered, according to a report from Observer.
VICE World News reached out to health ministries in Ontario and Quebec to inquire whether any vaccine doses in those provinces—which have been hardest hit by the pandemic in Canada—have had to be tossed out. Neither province responded before publication.
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