Canada’s COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Is a Mess

About two-thirds of the country's vaccine supply was still in storage as of Wednesday, and experts say politicians are offering too few details about next steps.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
January 7, 2021, 8:59pm
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he's frustrated with the slow vaccine rollout in Canada, while premiers, including Ontario Premier Doug Ford, say they need more doses. Photos by David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images (left) and Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images (right)

Nearly a month after the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine was approved, health experts say many Canadians won’t be vaccinated this year against COVID-19 if the country doesn’t rapidly fix its vaccination rollout. 

Canada has received more than 424,050 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines so far, but as of  Wednesday, only about 35 percent of them had been administered, CBC reported.

“Canadians, including me, are frustrated to see vaccines in freezers and not in people's arms," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.

Premiers, whose health ministries are responsible for administering the doses, blamed a small and inconsistent supply of vaccines from the federal government.

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“The federal government's process of getting vaccines to Canada means instead of a firehose, we're working with a bit of a squirt gun right now,” Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister told reporters on Wednesday

Trudeau’s government is in charge of acquiring vaccines and delivering them to provinces and territories, while regional governments—with the help of experts—actually administer them. Trudeau has said Indigenous communities, healthcare workers, and the elderly have priority access because they’re the most susceptible to severe COVID-19 outcomes.

A conference call between Trudeau and provincial leaders is scheduled for Thursday to address the beleaguered vaccine rollout. 

Experts and officials have listed multiple issues with Canada’s vaccine rollout, including low supply, slow pace, and too little communication from government officials—most Canadians don’t know how two-dose vaccines will be spaced out, where to get vaccinated, and when they’ll get the vaccine, despite Trudeau’s promises to successfully immunize all willing adults over the next nine months. At the same time, Canada has purchased more vaccines per capita—8.9 doses per person—than any other country, facing criticism for hoarding doses that could otherwise be delivered to people in poorer nations.

Inoculation too slow, confusing

“There’s no excuse to have vaccines in freezers,” Dr. Jeff Kwong, a University of Toronto epidemiologist, told VICE World News. The longer it takes to ramp up vaccination campaigns, the more people will die, he said.

Faster inoculation will also help ease the strain on health care systems, Kwong said, but that window is rapidly closing as Ontario’s hospitals can’t take on much more. One hospital in southwestern Ontario is now storing bodies in a trailer unit as COVID-19 cases surge, and an additional 500 or 600 intensive care hospitalizations would disrupt the entire hospital system.

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Kwong said he’s heard very little about vaccine rollout, apart from who the priority groups are. 

“In fairness the whole approvals process did happen quite quickly and there's uncertainty about logistics—where will it be stored, for example—but I think some plans could have been made earlier on,” Kwong said. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70 C, which means only the Moderna vaccine, which is stored more readily, can be transported widely. 

Another issue revolves around when to administer the second dose: provinces can opt to administer the first dose to as many people as possible, with the risk of delaying the second dose if stocks run out—an idea Quebec and Manitoba are for—or they can administer half of all doses in a given shipment and save the remaining half until they can be administered to the same people two to three weeks later. 

Multiple experts told VICE World News that delaying the second vaccine could be a gamble because there isn’t enough data yet to determine if one dose adequately protects people long-term. The U.K. has decided to extend the time between the two doses, even though the World Health Organization has publicly warned against it.

Officials needs to be upfront

According to University of Alberta infectious disease expert Dr. Lynora Saxinger, the lack of communication is the biggest problem right now; governments need to be more transparent by outlining comprehensive vaccine rollout plans in full detail, sharing how many people have been vaccinated already, how many doses are waiting in storage, and what the targets are in the coming months, Saxinger said.

“People want to be assured that right things are in place,” Saxinger said. 

If weeks go by and stocks continue to sit in the freezer, then Saxinger said provinces and territories need to look at expanding rollouts “by any means necessary,” including by recruiting undergraduate nurses, pharmacists, and family doctors who have volunteered to inoculate people.

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According to Saxinger, mass vaccination campaigns will improve rapidly across Canada as more vaccines trickle in and provinces iron out their strategies. As a result, she said she’s optimistic going forward and thinks it’s too early to tell whether the rollout will be botched. 

“It takes time to set things up thoughtfully,” Saxinger said. “I don’t think it’s a failure yet.”

World estimates show Canada is lagging behind the U.S., Russia, Germany, and Israel (despite praise for its rapid campaign, Israel has been criticized for refusing to vaccinate Palestinians living under occupation). Israel, for instance, has vaccinated more than 14 percent of its population, compared to 0.4 percent of Canadians. Saxinger said the comparison isn’t totally fair because Israel’s population is more compact and its health care system is more centralized. In Canada, multiple public health authorities need to coordinate their plans and vaccines need to travel long distances to reach everyone. France, a country more similar to Canada, is performing worse, she said.

Canada’s deadly second wave is ongoing

The race to get people vaccinated coincides with Canada’s ongoing second pandemic wave. 

As of Thursday afternoon, the country had 626,799 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 16,369 deaths.

Ontario has been one of the slowest provinces to administer vaccines and continues to report record-breaking rates of daily COVID-19 cases: on Thursday, Ontario announced a record 3,519 new cases and 89 more deaths—the deadliest day yet.

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More than 70 percent of Ontario’s vaccine doses were sitting idly in freezers earlier this week, and doctors have repeatedly urged the province to pick up the pace. 

Ontario’s Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment about the delays.

Alberta and British Columbia have vaccinated the largest proportion of their populations so far, 0.68 percent and 0.64 percent, respectively, according to a CTV News vaccine tracker. 

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro promised 29,000 vaccine doses would be administered to front-line health care workers and long-term care residents by the end of 2020, but the province didn’t reach its goal, with only 20 percent of the promised vaccinations administered by December 30. But as of Thursday, Alberta had administered more than 50 percent of the doses it had received so far.

Quebec public health recorded its most successful day of vaccinations on Wednesday after it administered nearly 10,000 doses—that’s compared to a little more than 6,000 on Tuesday and 2,529 on Monday. 

Nunavut has also started vaccination of elders in Iqaluit on Wednesday and plans to have 75 percent of adults vaccinated by the end of March. Meanwhile, in B.C., multiple First Nations have started to receive the Moderna vaccine, with those in Ontario gearing up to start vaccinating elders this week. 

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