Good morning. It’s James Keller.
The provinces’ COVID-19 vaccination programs are ramping up, particularly in B.C. and Alberta, where officials have been getting doses out so quickly that both provinces are already running into supply constraints.
As of yesterday, B.C. had given vaccines to about 76,000 people, and in Alberta, the number was about 74,000. Progress has been slower in other western provinces, with roughly 13,500 administered in Manitoba and 14,000 in Saskatchewan, but those provinces, too, are working to accelerate that pace.
But the country’s vaccine rollout was delivered a blow yesterday when Pfizer announced that work to expand its manufacturing facility in Belgium will force it to temporarily reduce deliveries to Canada and elsewhere.
That will mean a mass vaccination program, which was already the focus of complaints that supply constraints were holding back inoculations, will face even further delays at a time when infections are spiking in several provinces. Provincial governments are now scrambling to adjust while warning that their rollout plans, which have focused on particularly vulnerable groups such as people living in long-term care, will be thrown off course potentially until the end of March.
In Alberta, the delays aren’t expected to affect the vaccination of the province’s long-term care residents, which is expected to be finished by Monday.
But Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the province will be forced to delay vaccines for some health care workers, people over 75 and First Nations and Métis people over 65 living on reserves or Métis settlements.
“This is out of our control, but it will impact Alberta’s immunization schedule,” he told a news conference yesterday afternoon. “It will mean more people are on standby.”
The Pfizer issues will also mean that some people will have their second doses delayed. Laura McDougall, Alberta’s Senior Medical Officer of Health, says the province is figuring out how best to deal with that problem and manage potential delays in those critical second doses.
Premier Jason Kenney has been critical of the federal government’s handing of the vaccine supply, pointing to jurisdictions, including the United States, Britain and Israel, which have been able to secure vaccines sooner and administer them more quickly.
B.C.’s Health Minister said the delay will be significant, though Adrian Dix said the province hasn’t decided exactly how it will adjust its plans.
Mr. Dix said the province will have to evaluate whether the 21-day time period between the first dose, and the second booster shot, will remain the same.
“Obviously, any time we get reports that we’re going to get more vaccine, we’re happy, and any time we get reports that we’re going to get less vaccine, we’re not as happy,” Mr. Dix said. “... The federal government is working very hard to get as much vaccine as possible, and we appreciate that, so we’re making no criticism.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the province’s strategy for the two-dose regime depends on steady shipments.
“We have been planning our vaccine rollout based on this schedule, including second dosages,” Mr. Moe said.
Initially, many provinces were holding back half of their vaccine supply to ensure there were enough in hand to administer second doses. B.C. and Alberta were among provinces that have since decided to stop holding back those second doses in favour of giving first doses to as many people as possible, even if that means booster shots are delayed.
Saskatchewan and Manitoba continue to hold back that supply – a policy that Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister defended in light of the Pfizer delays.
“I think this backs our strategy,” Mr. Pallister said. “Our vaccination team has focused a little less on trying to get good short-term stats by rushing everything out and a little more on long-term protection by holding something back.”
Manitoba and Alberta are among the only jurisdictions outside Atlantic Canada and the territories where COVID-19 cases are falling.
Manitoba had a sharp surge in cases in November and put in strong restrictions that remain in place. Infection numbers have levelled off and have been increasing slightly over the past week or so.
In Alberta, the province went from having by far the highest infection rates in the country in mid-December to ranking fourth, behind Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
But even now, Alberta remains in a precarious position, with infection rates that are still far higher than where provincial health officials say they need to be and hospitalizations leading the country. Still, experts are cautiously optimistic that the downward trend will continue and the province will finally get infections under control – as long as the government doesn’t ease up on restrictions too soon.
“I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” said Stephanie Smith, director of hospital infection control at the University of Alberta Hospital and a professor at the university.
“I think all of us are worried that next week the government’s going to say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna open things up again.’ I am worried that would be too soon.”
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.