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Dr. Bonnie Henry and Minister Adrian Dix look on as Premier John Horgan talks about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Jan. 22, 2021.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Starting in February, British Columbia’s oldest residents will be asked to pre-register to get their COVID-19 vaccination, securing a place in line for when their age group is called.

The B.C. government offered the details of its distribution plan on Friday, as it wraps up the first phase of priority vaccinations for those in long-term care facilities. Rebuffing demands from various industries and professions, it has instead established a rollout based mostly on a resident’s date of birth.

“The science is very clear. The single biggest factor for death or severe illness, is age,” Premier John Horgan told a news conference on Friday. He said he has been lobbied hard by different interest groups that wanted priority vaccines, but said the plan is driven by the statistics on risk. An individual older than 60 is five times as likely to get seriously ill or die from COVID-19 than someone younger than 45, he noted. “No matter where you work, no matter what you do, your age is the predominant factor. And that’s been the focus of the development of this plan.”

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Even with mass vaccinations around the province starting in April, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said relief from pandemic restrictions such as mask requirements, travel limits and bans on social gatherings are many months away.

“I would love to be able to say July 1st, but I think there are a whole lot of unknowns,” she said. She suggested that non-essential travel within B.C. will likely be permitted by the summer, but not large gatherings. She cautioned that the new variants of COVID-19, or additional shortages of promised vaccines, could change that.

“By the summer, we should be able to have some types of our normal lives back again,” she said. “But the full, back to what we would like to have, in terms of social interactions and being together, is not likely until the fall.”

The province, dealing with uncertainty around vaccine supply, is focused on reaching select high-risk populations, such as people who are homeless, acute-care health workers, elderly residents at home and family doctors. Roughly 520,000 people are expected to be vaccinated in this early stage of the program, before distribution is opened up to the remainder of the province’s eligible adults. The two vaccines currently available in Canada, made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, have not been approved for people younger than 18.

Once residents are pre-registered, they will be contacted by their local health authority for the opportunity to visit one of mass vaccination centres that are being organized in 172 communities around the province. They will be set up in school gymnasiums, convention halls and stadiums, staffed by nurses and others who can be trained to administer the vaccine. Residents will emerge with a vaccination card, and instructions on when to return for their booster shot within 35 days.

Residents older than 79, or Indigenous elders older than 64, will be served first. Vaccinations will proceed based on age, descending in five-year increments. The last group to receive their shots will be those aged 18 to 24, with the last, second doses expected to be done in October.

The B.C. teachers union said they are concerned with the plan. “B.C. teachers, like many others, will be disappointed to see there is no prioritization for the front-line workers who have kept our schools, public services and economy open,” federation president Teri Mooring said in a statement.

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The Mayor of the Vancouver Island city of Duncan, which has seen a large wave of COVID-19 cases, expressed relief at word the program is under way. “The way that they rolled it out makes sense,” Michelle Staples said in an interview. “You can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Before, there has been [this sense] that we have no idea how long this is going to go on.”

Ian MacPhee, comptroller of Prince of Whales, a marine-tour company operating out of Vancouver and Vancouver Island, said the prospect of widespread vaccination in B.C. provides some “hopeful certainty” for his tourism business.

But hope has a cost. He said his 27-year-old company faces the challenge of surviving to the point when many are vaccinated. “But how many limbs will we have left? We may be that soldier stumbling off the battlefield with only one arm and one leg,” said Mr. MacPhee, who is also an at-large member of the board of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C.

The province’s plan is banking on the delivery of only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, but Dr. Henry said she is hoping a third vaccine, by AstraZeneca, will be approved shortly. That additional supply would allow the province to target some groups that are not currently prioritized but still facing elevated risk.

Until a majority of residents are vaccinated, the virus will continue to pose a risk, she noted. “We need to keep this bargain that we have made with each other, this social contract that we have, to keep ourselves, our communities, protected through this next few months, as we get towards the light, as we start to see the time when we will be able to come together again, when we will be able to take our masks off.”

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