British Columbia health officials have announced that COVID vaccines will start to become available in limited numbers next week at two distribution centres in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser health regions, with expansion to all regions including Island Health expected by early January.
“As we approach the winter solstice coming up, the longest night of the year, there is light ahead. And that light is shining a little brighter today,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Wednesday.
Speaking at a press conference along with Health Minister Adrian Dix and Immunize BC Operations Centre director Dr. Ross Brown, Henry was visibly excited by the news she had to share and the hope for widespread community immunization next spring. The program will start in a small-scale, targeted manner, however, due to vaccine supply limitations.
Henry said the limited doses available next week mean only the highest risk people will be vaccinated, according to a program set out by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and agreed upon by authorities across Canada. This means frontline health-care workers first and then people living in long-term care facilities.
“We know the lives that are being taken and affected most are seniors and elders in long-term care and assisted living. In addition, we have to protect our strained health-care system so all of us can get the care we need, when we need it,” Henry said.
While the roll-out will start with just one vaccine approved so far, Canada has purchase orders with seven different manufacturers. Henry said the types of people who can receive the vaccine and number of doses available will continue to increase through the winter. She expects around 380,000 people will be immunized by the end of March.
The province will at first receive just four trays of the vaccine made by Pfizer, which is the first to be approved in Canada, with 975 doses on each tray. Because this vaccine requires constant cooling at temperatures of -70 to -80 degrees Celsius, at first people will have to come to where the vaccine is stored.
Moderna, whose vaccine is expected to be approved next, has less stringent cooling requirements and can be refrigerated for several days. This will allow health authorities to transport it to communities of need.
Henry said that after Dec. 14 there will be tens of thousands of doses on the way and the province will add an additional seven distribution sites, increasing that to 30 sites in January. The next tier of risk to be vaccinated will include teachers and essential workers in other fields than health, people over the age of 80, remote and vulnerable First Nations communities and people living in high-risk situations for transmission, such as homeless shelters.
“We have enough vaccine that we expect to receive between now and the end of March to cover those key populations. We do expect by the end of March and going into the spring there will be more vaccine products and more of the vaccines available to more rapidly spread out to people in the community,” Henry said.
Pfizer and Moderna both created their products as a new type of messenger RNA vaccine, which use synthetic genetic material. Henry said they have the advantage of being easy to produce in large quantities, but have not been tested on people under age 16, pregnant women, or people with compromised immune systems. The more traditional vaccines that are now in the approval stages will be safe for those people.
Henry said she believes by the end of March or early April, distribution of the vaccine can take place through more traditional means such as pharmacies and public health clinics.
“Right now we don’t have enough vaccine to slow transmission across the province so our focus is to protect those who are most at risk,” she said.