First doses of COVID-19 vaccine in B.C. to go to health, long-term care workers

Long-term care and front-line workers in intensive and emergency care and COVID units will receive the initial 4,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine approved by Health Canada on Wednesday and due to arrive at two clinics in B.C. next week.

Next in line for the vaccine will be residents of long-term care and assisted-living facilities.

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“We are focusing on saving lives and that is the people who are most likely to get seriously ill and end up in hospital,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer. “The single most important factor in who gets very sick and dies from this virus is your age.”

The Pfizer vaccine, which is 95 per cent effective, is not approved for use in children under age 16, pregnant women, or people with compromised immune systems due to conditions such as cancer, and needs to be given in two doses, about three weeks apart, for full immunity a week later.

Two trays with 975 doses each will be delivered early next week to two clinics, one in the Fraser Health region and the other in Vancouver Coastal Health. As more vaccine doses are delivered, there are plans to increase the number of clinic locations to nine in all regions of the province, including Island Health, in late December or early January. Thirty possible clinical sites have been identified for when more vaccines come online for distribution.

B.C. Premier John Horgan called the arrival of the vaccine a “sign of optimism for all of us,” but added British Columbians need to “redouble our efforts as we go into the next number of months.”

The province announced 619 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and an additional 16 deaths. There are five new cases in the Island Health region, and more than 9,300 active cases in B.C.

After the initial doses, the province is expected to receive tens of thousands of vaccine doses into early January, said Henry.

After those who work and live in long-term care, the focus of vaccination efforts will shift to seniors over the age of 80 in the community, those at risk because of health conditions and living in communal settings such as shelters, and people who are under-housed and homeless, she said. That includes Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and and remote and isolated First Nations communities.

The vaccine rollout for vulnerable populations will start next week and continue until the end of March, Henry said.

Because the Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at temperatures as low as -80 C, it can’t be moved to a long-term care residence to immunize residents, she said, although that may happen later.

In total, Canada has signed deals with seven vaccine manufacturers. The second in line is the Moderna vaccine, which health officials hope will be licensed for use in Canada and arrive before the end of the year. The plan is for the Moderna vaccine, which can be kept in a regular fridge for up to about six days, to be used for long-term care residents.

It’s expected the additional vaccines will roll out “very rapidly” in the spring and will be more easily transported and delivered through family doctors, pharmacies and public-health clinics, Henry said.

By late March or April, the goal is to have about 380,000 B.C. residents vaccinated, she said, including other health-care workers, first responders, teachers and people who work in essential services such as grocery stores, manufacturing, production facilities and transportation.

The Immunize B.C. Operation Center, which is overseeing distribution of the vaccine in B.C., has built its plan on the backbone of the province’s existing immunization program, said Dr. Ross Brown, vice-president of pandemic response for Vancouver Coastal Health, who is acting as incident commander for vaccine distribution.

Ross urged British Columbians to be patient over the coming months. “Our approach will be slow, steady and nimble at the beginning and will ramp up as more vaccine becomes available,” he said. “I compare this to one of the Royal Canadian Navy ships slowly and methodically leaving Esquimalt Harbor, increasing speed and maneuverability as she heads to sea to complete her mission.

“We consider this a no-fail mission and we’re going to get it done.”

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