Canada’s chief public health officer says the first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine are likely to be given only to people who can physically be at one of the 14 delivery sites identified by provincial governments for the first arrivals of the vaccine.
Dr. Theresa Tam said at a briefing that it is a “rapidly evolving situation” but acknowledged that this will make it difficult to get long-term care residents vaccinated first.
“It’s true you cannot move residents very easily from a long-term care centre to a vaccine site,” she said. “That’s just the reality.”
It is not clear how this jibes with some provincial plans, including in Quebec, where the health minister said Monday the government intends to ship its first vaccine doses to two long-term care homes.
A Pfizer spokeswoman told The Canadian Press that the company is asking for the delivery limitation.
“For the initial stages of vaccination, I can confirm that we are asking for vaccines to be administered only at the first vaccination points,” said Christina Antoniou.
She said where the vaccine can be injected is “part of ongoing discussions” with provincial governments, who are in charge of getting the vaccine into patients. However she noted Pfizer’s actual contract for the COVID-19 vaccine is with the federal government.
“Pfizer, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the provinces are working together to finalize preparations at the first point of use sites this week, including training on how to handle the product,” she said. “These are the sites identified by the federal government’s National Operations Centre for initial vaccination of priority populations.”
Tam said she is hopeful that as everyone involved gets more experienced and comfortable transporting and administering the vaccine, things could change.
“I do think that’s a fluid situation,” she said.
Health Canada is in the midst of its final analysis of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer, said he is very hopeful a positive decision is coming soon. But he said Health Canada’s regulatory team is making that decision on its own, independent of any outside influence.
Federal officials have said for weeks they couldn’t provide a delivery date for any vaccine until Health Canada had issued approval for its use, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday 249,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will be in Canada by month’s end.
The first doses are to start arriving next week, and Pfizer, Canada and the provinces are doing trial runs this week to test the delivery processes.
Pfizer’s vaccine is extremely delicate and must be stored at temperatures below -70 C, until shortly before it is administered. It can be stored in a refrigerator for up to five days, and at room temperature for up to two hours, before it is diluted and then injected.
The ultralow temperature has made the entire delivery process much more complicated for Pfizer than what is being planned for other vaccines yet to come. While other vaccines will be sent by their manufacturers to one national site and then distributed within Canada, Pfizer is shipping its first vaccine doses to 14 sites designated by the provinces.
There are two sites each in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta, and one in each of the other six provinces. Eventually the plan is to have 205 sites in the provinces.
The Pfizer vaccine is also too touchy to be shipped north to remote Indigenous communities. That means two of the four priority groups identified for initial vaccines aren’t likely to get access to the first rounds of vaccinations.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended last week that the first doses go to residents of long-term care and their caregivers, front-line health workers, people over the age of 80 and adults in Indigenous communities where an outbreak would be harder to manage.
Most provinces are following those recommendations almost exactly.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said an expected executive order from U.S. President Donald Trump to prioritize Pfizer doses for Americans should not affect Canada’s expected deliveries.
LeBlanc says concerns about dose supplies were contemplated when the contracts were signed.
Canada’s doses of Pfizer’s vaccine are to come from lots produced at the company’s manufacturing plant in Belgium.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 8, 2020.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press