Corporate Canada is readying a major push to support the battle against COVID-19 in the weeks ahead by setting up mass vaccination sites in what are normally workplaces. Businesses involved say they’re motivated not only by altruism but also by a desire to move past the coronavirus crisis as quickly as possible.
The endeavour is clearest in Quebec, where the government of Premier François Legault announced plans in March to enlist companies willing to establish “vaccination hubs” on their grounds in a bid to vaccinate 500,000 people and expand the province’s overall immunization capacity. More than 450 businesses answered the call and the first 13 hubs are now being readied to welcome people across Quebec starting next month.
A second phase of corporate reinforcement will come after that, with more companies getting involved by offering additional vaccination sites, staff or monetary contributions to help offset the costs being shouldered by the corporate players already involved, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said in a recent interview. It is believed to be the first time the private sector has been called upon to assist in an emergency situation of this nature outside wartime.
“Companies have been excessively receptive” to this request, said Mr. Dubé, who formerly steered Quebec investments for pension fund giant Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. “These are immense challenges we’re facing and I think they’re showing a strong social conscience.”
Similar efforts are under way in other provinces to involve private enterprise in vaccination campaigns, with different jurisdictions adopting different approaches.
The move by governments to tap business highlights the pressure on the public-health system, where doctors, nurses and other medical workers are significantly overstretched one year into the pandemic. Recruiting business is intended to relieve some of that strain and add more vaccination power as governments across Canada brace for the impact to health resources from mounting COVID-19 caseloads.
“We’ll have to vaccinate a lot of people in a short amount of time in May and June and that’s when this will make a real difference,” said Marjaurie Côté-Boileau, spokeswoman for Mr. Dubé. The corporate effort represents roughly 10 per cent of the 5.3 million doses Quebec plans to have doled out by the Fête nationale holiday on June 24, she said.
In Quebec, companies including Bell, Rio Tinto Ltd. and Cascades Inc. are participating in the parallel system, picking up from the public network responsibility for the logistical work involved in vaccination and paying for it. Businesses will assume most if not all the costs, including hiring outside experts to deliver the vaccines. Pharmacies are already involved in delivering shots.
Bell is partnering with Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., Groupe CH, Metro Inc. and National Bank of Canada to offer two vaccination clinics in Montreal and Brossard. The companies are together pledging $4-million to set up and deliver the jabs.
They say access will be open to all residents of greater Montreal, including the combined 50,000 employees of the five companies and members of their immediate families, based on the order of priority established by the government.
Senior leaders at flight training firm CAE Inc. have been among those spearheading efforts to secure corporate involvement in vaccination delivery across Canada, and even dispatched a project management director to work with the Quebec government full time on how to implement the strategy. The executive, Marie-Christine Cloutier, has been “lent out” by CAE for an eight-month mandate, according to her LinkedIn profile.
CAE has converted offices and conference rooms at its Montreal base into a 12,000-square-foot vaccination centre. Like other hub operators, it has committed to vaccinating between 15,000 and 25,000 people from May to August from stocks supplied by the government, its communications chief Hélène Gagnon said. The work builds on the company’s earlier initiatives in the pandemic response, including producing ventilators.
“Our interest is to rally people, do something, have our employees also feel that they could do something else to help in this fight,” Ms. Gagnon said. “But also the interest of the private sector is to restart the economy. So the sooner we can vaccinate more people, the sooner we can reopen the economy, reopen the borders, have people travel and get businesses going. … We want to go faster.”
In Ontario, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce partnered with Bruce Power and Facebook Canada to launch an online portal to connect the province’s public-health units with private-sector organizations offering local support. The provincial government is also working with public-health units, business groups and large employers “to explore employer-operated onsite vaccination clinics,” with a focus on hot-spot communities at greatest risk, the Premier’s office said in a news release last week.
In British Columbia, the government is tapping more than 1,400 tourism and hospitality employees who’ve lost their jobs to work as non-clinical workers in mass-vaccination centres. The employees, many of whom bring additional language skills to the task, will help move people through the clinics.
Companies are another key piece in the vaccination puzzle. They offer familiarity to their employees and people living in the area near their facilities who might be hesitant to get inoculated in a public clinic, said Paul Sislian, head of operations for Bombardier Inc. The company is setting up a jab site in one of its aircraft hangars near Trudeau International Airport.
“Can we do something the government can’t? I’m not sure. … But we are going to be offering a benefit to people that might not be comfortable going [elsewhere] and since it’s within our facilities and on our grounds, that will hopefully encourage people to come in.”