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Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.

After weeks of urging the B.C. government to lean on them as part of the expanding effort to get people vaccinated, pharmacists were called up Tuesday. They had mere hours to prepare for the vaccine to arrive at their stores and for the onslaught of people aged 55-65 who suddenly qualified to get an AstraZeneca shot and were phoning or showing up in droves.

Pharmacists took in the sudden fire-hose of activity, creating waitlists and welcoming lineups of people, many of whom had never stepped foot into their businesses and might not again. But it seems that some pharmacies were being more selective than others about who got the jab, raising the spectre that some companies were regarding the vaccine as a customer loyalty perk.

On Wednesday, Scott Bernstein told The Globe and Mail that he was denied a dose at a Save-On-Foods pharmacy because he was not a customer. On Thursday, he said he was called by the pharmacist at Save-On and told he could get a shot after all because the pharmacist was able to get an extra dose out of the vial.

The pharmacist told him: “I got you an extra one and I just want to let you know we are prioritizing our customers and the reason is, you know, because we have limited vaccines,” he said in an interview Thursday.

“I don’t want to be ungrateful. I’m really happy I got it. I’m happy they bend rules even though I’m eligible I’m glad they, they sort of helped me get into the queue. But I think it’s not really fair to other folks. The system should really be equal to people.”

Save-On-Foods has not responded to repeated requests for comment on its policy.

Annette Robinson, president of British Columbia Pharmacy Association, said the association expects pharmacists to deliver vaccines in a fair manner, but she noted pharmacies have their own processes and the association doesn’t think a directive requiring her members to stick to a first-come, first-served basis for delivering vaccines is necessary.

“We’re not familiar with the specific cases that you’re referring to. But what we do expect from our members is that their process for administering the COVID vaccines, it’s fair, so that means that no one is receiving it at a priority at the expense of another eligible patient.”

On Wednesday, when Health Minister Adrian Dix was asked if pharmacies were able to limit vaccine supplies to their own customers, he replied “I don’t believe that’s what’s happening. This is a relatively small amount of vaccine that we needed to move out right away.” On Thursday, Globe legislature reporter Justine Hunter asked him twice to comment on the issue of whether pharmacies could offer their own customers preferential treatment.

The exchange at Thursday’s COVID briefing went like this (and this is abridged):

Justine: The question is about an issue of preferential treatment. We’ve spoken to two individuals who say they were denied a vaccine because they were not regular customers of the pharmacy they were trying to get the shot at.

So, my question is: Is that acceptable or do you think it needs to be explicit that pharmacies are not going to favour their own customers with this vaccine?

Mr. Dix: “If you talk to the pharmacies, the issue here is supply. The issue is that we have hundreds of thousands of people who are eligible in these categories and right now we had 18,000. As I told you, we are about to receive a very significant ... We have received and will be distributing out over the coming number of days, over the weekend, it’ll be starting next week, a further 188,500 doses, much of which will go into this program.

So, that’s the issue. The issue is supply as it always is. We would like to be immunizing way more people in B.C., but we’re immunizing to the supply that we have.”

Mr. Dix’s answer, notably, did not address whether it was a good idea to allow pharmacies to offer their existing customers priority access and indeed, underlined the point more deeply that vaccine supplies are scarce and as a result, fairness is an issue to be considered.

London Drugs, Loblaw – which owns Shopper’s Drug Mart – and the Costco in Burnaby all explicitly stated in statements to Globe reporters that anyone needing a vaccine will get one from their stores.

Alberta was the first province in Canada to include pharmacies in its vaccine rollout. Community pharmacies have been administering COVID-19 vaccines since the beginning of March, when they were included in the rollout for people over 75. They have since been involved in every subsequent phase of the vaccine plan.

The use of pharmacies has dramatically expanded access to vaccines in Alberta, in some cases making them available in communities without a government-run vaccine clinic and saving people the time and hassle of travelling.

But there have also been similar issues as in B.C. With no centralized booking system, as each new cohort becomes eligible, people are left calling around to pharmacies to check for available spots – if they can get through without hitting a busy signal. Some pharmacies have their own online booking systems but many do not.

The province has tried to address some of those issues recently by limited age groups who can book at pharmacies, similar to how the booking works through Alberta Health Service’s system. Pharmacies are also keeping wait lists of people in the current phase who can be there within an hour to fill empty spots and use up leftover doses.

The pharmacist at the UBC Pharmacy arrived at his shop Wednesday morning knowing the next few days ahead were going to be crazy. On Thursday, when told that some pharmacies were giving priority to existing customers he looked dismayed. He, paused, shook his head and said it wasn’t how he was doing things. And then he went back to work tending to the line of people eager for the chance to put the horror of the pandemic behind them.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.