Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s troubled by the slow pace of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and is vowing to raise the lacklustre vaccination numbers with premiers during a conference call later this week.
Canada already has received more than 424,050 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines — but only 35 per cent of those doses have been administered by the provinces, with roughly 148,000 Canadians having received a shot so far.
Ontario’s vaccination program has been particularly slow: just 50,000 doses have been administered in the province since the inoculation campaign began on Dec. 15. If the province continues to administer an average of just 2,500 shots a day, it will take over a decade to vaccinate all adults in the province.
“I think Canadians, including me, are frustrated to see vaccines in freezers and not in people’s arms,” Trudeau said. “That’s why we’re going to continue working closely with the provinces both to deliver vaccines to the provinces and to support them as they need it in terms of getting more vaccines out to vulnerable populations and front-line workers as quickly as possible.”
Trudeau said he planned to raise the issue on a planned first ministers’ meeting call.
“Now is the time, with the new year upon us, to really accelerate, and that’s certainly what I’ll be talking with the premiers about on Thursday — how the federal government can support and help [with] getting vaccines even more quickly out to Canadians,” he said.
Ontario vows to ramp up distribution
Ontario Premier Doug Ford acknowledged Tuesday there have been some “bumps in the road” — the provincial vaccination campaign was partially paused over the Christmas holidays — but said he is expecting distribution to ramp up significantly over the coming days. The province administered 7,607 doses on Monday.
“Our message to the federal government is, just keep these vaccines coming because we’re going to be running out,” Ford said. “Once our machine gets going, and it’s going … watch out, there is no one who can compete against us.”
Ontario’s vaccination rate is currently among the lowest in the country on a per capita basis.
Alberta, B.C. and P.E.I. have so far administered the most doses per capita among the provinces, and Manitoba has administered the fewest.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said his province has disproportionately more people living in rural and remote areas and it’s been difficult to reach those people with the Pfizer-BioNTech product, which has been largely limited to urban areas because of its cold-storage requirements.
Trudeau said Canada is expected to have roughly one million doses of the vaccine on hand by the end of January — enough to inoculate 500,000 people with the two-dose vaccine regime.
He repeated his pledge to procure enough shots to vaccinate every adult Canadian who wants a shot by the end of September. The country will have to administer roughly 100,000 doses a day for the next 268 days if it’s going to vaccinate every adult in Canada by that time.
‘This is unacceptable’
Canada’s vaccination effort has so far been outpaced by those in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Israel, Denmark and the United Arab Emirates, among others. According to the latest data collated by the University of Oxford-based Our World in Data, Canada has, however, administered more shots per capita than G7 partners like Italy and France and middle-income countries like Argentina and Croatia.
While the U.S. has had logistical troubles of its own in the early days of this vaccination effort, the Americans have vaccinated nearly four times more people per capita than Canada.
More than 4.6 million people in the U.S. have received a shot already. The federal government there has delivered 15.4 million doses to the states, territories and federal agencies.
West Virginia has already vaccinated every resident of a long-term care home while other smaller states, such as Connecticut, plan to finish the first round of doses this week.
Ford said today Ontario expects to have the staff and residents of these facilities in Toronto, Peel and York regions vaccinated with the first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna product by Jan. 21.
208,000 doses per week expected for next 3 weeks
Trudeau said the recent spike in outbreaks at Ontario long-term care facilities is “extremely concerning.” According to the latest provincial data, there are 373 active outbreaks at long-term care homes and retirement residences.
“This is unacceptable. Our elders, our parents and grandparents built this country. They raised us and they deserve the best possible care,” Trudeau said.
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Canada will receive 208,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine each week for the next three weeks, while 171,000 Moderna shots are expected to arrive on January 11.
“We’re working diligently with manufacturers and federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners to ensure a continuous and predictable flow of vaccines. We’re ready for a sustained tempo of vaccines throughout the month of January,” Fortin said.
“While quantities seem limited, we are scaling up. This is a deliberate operation.”
Tam advises against stockpiling
Fortin said his team at the national operations centre will be sending more cold storage equipment — freezers and thermal shippers, among other tools — to help provinces set up more sites to administer the temperature-sensitive Pfizer vaccine. At the start of the vaccination campaign, there were just 14 sites nationwide where people could get the Pfizer shot.
“All of that will facilitate the different jurisdictions to administer the vaccines safely and effectively,” he said.
While all provinces have started delivering shots, most have stockpiled the second dose to ensure they have enough supply on hand.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said that because provinces can count on a specific number of doses arriving each week for the foreseeable future, they can start to vaccinate as many people as possible.
“So initially, of course, given … the supply situation and the uncertainties in December, people were holding back that second dose. Now, with a bit more certainty in the supply, I think provinces are looking to not hold back that second dose because they want to more rapidly immunize the population with that first shot,” Tam said.
While some countries have floated the idea of simply administering one dose of the two-dose regime, or of administering the second dose well beyond the recommended 21-day timeline between shots, Tam said Canada is committed to following product guidelines from the manufacturers. She added, however, that researchers are studying the effectiveness of a single shot.
The work to distribute the vaccine comes at one of the darkest points of the pandemic. More than 16,000 people in Canada have died after contracting the virus.