Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged challenges with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Canada and expressed frustration at the pace of distribution of the largest immunization campaign of the country’s history.
“We have seen some challenges that I think we are all impatient about in terms of getting vaccines into arms,” Mr. Trudeau said at his first news conference of the new year.
Canadians are frustrated to see some COVID-19 vaccines sitting in freezers, Mr. Trudeau added, as he pledged Ottawa will work closely with the provinces to deliver vaccines to vulnerable populations and front-line workers. He said that vaccine distribution will be discussed with the premiers during a first ministers’ meeting on Thursday.
Ottawa has been working to procure COVID-19 vaccines and to deliver them to the provinces and territories, but the federal government has said that distribution is the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments upon delivery.
Canada is facing increased criticism about the slower speed of the country’s vaccine rollout plan compared with peer countries while case numbers grow rapidly. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Tuesday there have been 611,424 cases of COVID-19 in Canada including 16,074 deaths. Nationally there are almost 77,500 active cases.
Canadians are also being encouraged to hunker down and stay home to stop the spread of infection. The pace of vaccinations will also be critical for the health of the economy, which was plunged into a recession as a result of lockdown measures in response to the virus.
Major-General Dany Fortin, a former NATO commander in charge of Canada’s overall vaccine rollout, said Tuesday that the country is in a better position to predict the doses that will arrive this month and into February. He also said it will continue to ship cold-enabling equipment to help boost the capacity of the provinces and territories and to allow them to create additional vaccine distribution sites.
“All of that put together really will facilitate the different jurisdictions to administer vaccines effectively and as safely as possible,” he said.
Government figures compiled by the COVID-19 Canada Open Data Working Group show no province has administered more than 50 per cent of the doses it has received so far, and some doctors are urging provincial governments to ramp up their immunization campaigns.
Israel, Britain, the United States and Germany have all inoculated a larger share of their populations than Canada, despite Canada being one of the first countries to start authorizing vaccines against the novel coronavirus.
Mr. Trudeau noted that Canada received hundreds of thousands of doses in December, earlier than they were expected. He also said there are many ways to distribute vaccines other than through hospital centres and that this is being explored with the provinces.
The Prime Minister said the government has taken steps to ensure vaccines will be stored properly but that Ottawa wants more Canadians to be vaccinated. He said he remains confident that every Canadian who wants to get a vaccine will be able to get one by September.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday the province is activating plans to have all long-term care residents and workers who want the vaccine in the province’s worst-hit hotspots – Toronto, York Region, Peel Region and Windsor-Essex – vaccinated by Jan. 21.
In brief remarks before a meeting with the province’s vaccine task force, the Premier said he hopes to hit that target earlier, by Jan. 18. As of Monday, Ontario had administered more COVID-19 vaccines than any other province, but the fewest per capita.
Mr. Ford said it may take a week or two to ramp up efforts but that, once that happens, the province will match or outpace other jurisdictions.
In all, there are 161 long-term care homes in the target regions, with about 55,000 doses required to provide everyone with their first shot, according to Rick Hillier, the retired general leading Ontario’s vaccine distribution efforts.
Provincial officials said that all those doses will be from vaccine-maker Moderna, which has so far shipped 53,000 doses to Ontario. Another 56,000 doses of the Moderna shot, which can be kept in a regular freezer and is easier to transport than the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, are expected to arrive in Ontario next week.
About 7,000 injections of the Moderna product in 50 long-term care homes are expected to be completed by the end of the day Wednesday.
Ontario Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was shocked to hear that long-term care residents in the hardest-hit areas will have to wait until Jan. 21 for vaccinations to be complete, while the rest of the province’s long-term residents still remain vulnerable.
Provincial officials also announced Tuesday that they would begin injecting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at nursing homes outside the Greater Toronto Area and Windsor, with pilot testing of new protocols at homes in Ottawa taking place on Tuesday.
Unlike Quebec and some other jurisdictions, Ontario initially decided against administering the Pfizer-BioNTech shot inside nursing homes. Authorized by Health Canada on Dec. 9, the Pfizer-BioNTech shot has to be stored at minus 70 C, and Ontario officials have said the vaccine-maker discourages them from transporting vials away from ultracold freezers at hospitals.
Ontario is expecting another 290,000 doses of the Pfizer shot in January, significantly more than what it expects from Moderna. Over all, it’s a still a tiny fraction of what the province needs, Mr. Hillier said, adding that Ontario plans to inject what’s left of its existing Pfizer-BioNTech stock by the end of this week.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult … unless those allocations increase,” Mr. Hillier said. “We could use more doses. Thousands more.”
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