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Last Wednesday, Britain became the first country in the Group of Seven to give emergency authorization to the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine. The United States and Canada are expected to follow suit in the coming days. Approvals of other leading vaccine candidates, notably those from Moderna and AstraZeneca, are also around the corner.

The U.S. and U.K. say they will receive their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine later this month and have needles in arms by Christmas; barring the unexpected, Canada says it will receive its first doses of the vaccine in early January and hopes to begin injections soon after that.

As production ramps up and more vaccines come online as approvals continue, all three countries hope to have inoculated most of their populations by September, 2021. The finish line is going to be largely the same for each country.

But in the coming weeks and months, the speed at which this country is able to vaccinate those most at risk will determine how many Canadians make it there.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has said that, in the first quarter of 2021, Canada expects to receive enough vaccines to immunize three million people. A federal advisory committee recommends that priority be given to seniors in long-term care and other congregate settings, Canadians over the age of 80, and health care workers. By our count, that’s roughly three million people.

Moving quickly is critical, because the logistics of delivering millions of doses – some of which need to be shipped and stored at frigid temperatures – are daunting.

Canada has so far done a poor job of containing the spread of the coronavirus and is now suffering through a rising second wave, so it has something to prove on this score.

While Ottawa and the provinces can’t go back and acquire the testing and contact tracing they should have put in place over the summer, it’s not too late to demonstrate to Canadians that they can organize an emergency vaccination program in short order.

That’s why it was reassuring that Major-General Dany Fortin, who is leading the vaccine logistics effort at the Public Health Agency of Canada, told the provinces last week that they need to be ready to start administering doses by Dec. 14.

If that seems rather quick, given that Canada isn’t expecting vaccine shipments until January, it’s not.

To make mass vaccinations possible, Maj.-Gen. Fortin wants to set up 14 specialized distribution sites across the provinces and territories just for the Pfizer vaccine, which has to be stored at -80 degrees. Over all, Maj.-Gen. Fortin said the goal is to establish 205 sites across the country to store and distribute vaccines.

As well, provinces need to set up their own depots and vaccination centres, and train people to administer the vaccines. And because the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots one month apart, there needs to be tracking of every recipient, to make sure they get their second dose.

If anyone thinks the final touches on something of this scale can be put in place just as the first planeload of vaccines lands in the country, they are dead wrong. The secure, low-temperature storage chain will need to be built, tested and running, and the delivery, management and communications rehearsed and perfected well before that.

With Maj.-Gen. Fortin, along with staff from the Canadian Armed Forces, in charge at the federal level, there is reason to be optimistic. This is a national mobilization effort, and success starts with the provinces following an old military saying: “Hurry up and wait.”

The preparations must be done now, after which we wait, fully prepared, for the vaccines to hit our shores. Knowing exactly which day that will be and how many doses will be available is, for the moment, irrelevant.

But while Ottawa appears to be in good hands, the provinces seem less so. Ontario only created a committee to advise the government on vaccine distribution on Friday. Last week, a spokesperson for Quebec Premier François Legault was not even aware of Ottawa’s Dec. 14 deadline.

Given how most provinces did a poor job of preventing the second wave of the virus, the slightest indication that they are not properly prepared to distribute vaccines is highly troubling.

It brings to mind another military expression – SNAFU. Look it up.

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