In this Jan. 22, 2021, file photo, empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen at a vaccination centre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in Las Vegas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Locher

Provinces to boost vaccination efforts as Pfizer deliveries expected to ramp up

The Ontario government said Monday it is developing a web portal for booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments, a sign of provinces preparing to ramp up vaccination efforts as manufacturer Pfizer-BioNTech increases deliveries.

In Quebec, Health Minister Christian Dube tweeted Monday the province expects more than 90,000 Pfizer vaccines this week, which will allow it to “increase the rhythm” of vaccination, particularly in private seniors homes.

The federal government said that after a month-long slowdown as Pfizer expanded its plant in Belgium, it expects to receive weekly shipments of more than 400,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine beginning this week and lasting at least until early April.

That number represents a significant jump in shipments to Canada, which has received a total of about 928,200 Pfizer doses since December.

The new schedule, published on the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website, specifies that the numbers are based on the understanding that there are six shots per vial, rather than five as originally calculated.

Ontario’s proposed online booking system will be part of the province’s expanded vaccine rollout, which on Sunday was updated to identify adults aged 80 and older, seniors in congregate care and Indigenous adults among those next in line for a shot.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch says a more predictable delivery schedule will make it easier for provinces to plan.

The University of Toronto expert, who sits on the province’s vaccine task force, said in an interview that while the shipment delays have given the provinces time to fine-tune their plans, it remains to be seen whether they will carry them out smoothly, especially when it comes to the more complex operation of vaccinating the general population.

“It all looks really, really good on paper, but it’s another thing to actually operationalize this,” he said.

The community phase of the rollout will include figuring out how to prioritize various groups, including different age cohorts, racialized and low-income communities, essential workers and those with underlying health conditions, he said.

The federal government on Monday updated its guidance to the provinces to specify that adults from racialized communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic should be given priority for shots in the second stage of the vaccination campaign, which comes after staff and residents of long-term care homes, adults aged 70 and older, front-line health workers and adults in Indigenous communities have received their shots.

The advice would also see all essential workers who can’t work from home moved into the second stage, instead of focusing on health workers with lower-risk jobs.

The new vaccine deliveries will be welcomed by provinces and territories, which have administered the vast majority of the vaccines received to date. They will also likely ease some of the pressure on the federal Liberal government, which has been accused of mismanaging what amounts to the largest mass-vaccination effort in Canadian history.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week acknowledged the struggle with deliveries, but said things will get better in the weeks ahead, and even better in April, when Canada is expecting as many as one million doses a week.

“We’re approaching something we’re calling the big lift,” he said Thursday in a virtual roundtable with nurses and doctors from around Canada.

The head of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer assured Trudeau on Monday that Canada could also expect to receive AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines from India “in less than a month,” pending their approval by Health Canada.

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, delivered the news on Twitter after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised Trudeau last week that India would “do its best” to get COVID-19 vaccines to Canada.

Health Canada is in the final stages of approving the AstraZeneca vaccine. It also received an application Jan. 23 to review the production process at the Serum Institute of India, ahead of the possibility Canada will get its doses from there.

Yet the problems aren’t entirely over. Moderna — the other company whose vaccine has been approved for use in Canada so far — has confirmed its next shipment on Feb. 22 will be only 168,000 doses, two-thirds of what had been promised.

Moderna, which delivers once every three weeks, shipped 180,000 doses last week — 80 per cent of the promised amount.

In addition, Pfizer’s deliveries will only meet the promised number of doses if medical professionals can adjust to extracting six doses from every vial.

Getting that sixth dose requires the use of a low dead-volume syringe, which traps less vaccine in the needle and syringe after an injection. Canada has now ordered 72 million of those syringes, and two million were delivered last week.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander overseeing Canada’s vaccine distribution, has said those were being shipped to the provinces to be ready for Monday, though no provinces reported receiving any as of Thursday.

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