Vaccines will be here soon. But health officials warn it will be a long time before it’s safe to relax COVID-19 controls

OTTAWA— Like a sugar high, news of the looming approval and arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine had its own letdown.

Canada’s top public health officials said Tuesday that the most vulnerable long-term-care residents, those who are not mobile, might not be first to get inoculated despite topping the priority list. Only those who can get to the initial 14 centralized distribution sites at hospitals identified by provinces will get early doses.

Most Canadians still face waiting up to six months — according to a timeline the prime minister offered last week — before a vaccine will be widely available, and that’s “optimistic” according to public health officials.

And provinces have still uncertain vaccine rollout plans, with details quickly evolving.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam dished out the bitter diagnosis and prescription.

Although she welcomed the announcement that Pfizer/BioNTech will deliver nearly a quarter million vaccine doses prior to Health Canada regulatory approval so that there’s little lag between authorization and distribution, Tam said “it does not mean that control of COVID-19 will be quick.”

Initial vaccine supplies will be limited and while we wait, she said, it is “crucial” to protect ourselves and others.

“This is not a race to the finish, but a test of our continued collective effort and resolve and we will endure.”

Canada’s COVID-19 daily case counts averaged more than 6,400 a day for the past week. Up to 80,000 people a day were tested, with an eight per cent positive test rate. The number of people with severe illness who have to be hospitalized and need critical care continues to increase.

During the second resurgence of the virus in Canada, Tam said, “we are estimating that still about 70 per cent of the deaths are linked to long-term care.”

Yet plans are to administer the Pfizer vaccine at the central hubs where they are delivered. That will change as health-care personnel get used to handling and transporting the vaccine, but Tam said, “It’s true that you cannot move residents very easily from a long-term-care facility to a vaccination site. So that’s just the reality.”

Other basic questions have no answers yet, such as how vaccine rollout will happen for populations whose health services the federal government delivers, such as on-reserve First Nations communities or federal prison populations, or for 75,000 regular Canadian Forces members.

Only “very small” amounts of the initial batch of doses will be distributed to those groups “that don’t get it from the provincial, territorial system, that being health-care workers, for example, in corrections and the CAF, Canadian Armed Forces, or some elderly population within that context,” and they’ll get doses along the nationally recommended guidelines for priority access, Tam said.

Tam urged strict adherence to masking, distancing and handwashing measures as most Canadians won’t be vaccinated for months, and pushed back at suggestions the consequences of lockdowns might be more deadly than the virus.

“If you do not slow this virus down and your health-care system can’t cope that can lead to a lot of negative consequences which you can see in many European countries that are just a bit ahead of us and if you’ve learned from them what’s happening in this resurgence, it’s pretty clear that we have to do more in many areas of Canada to slow down the epidemic.”

Nationally Canada has tallied 429,628 cases according to a tracker by Johns Hopkins University that is more up to date than Health Canada’s.

Canada reports a cumulative total of 12,862 deaths, with 7,724 new cases in the last day alone, just under the all-time high last week of 7,895 daily cases.

The federal Liberals offered one bit of encouraging news Tuesday.

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Shipments to Canada of Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine are not expected to be disrupted by President Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict U.S.-made vaccines to Americans first, the federal government says.

Ottawa negotiated its contract with Pfizer to ensure a “diverse supply” from different manufacturing sites, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc said Tuesday, so that the supply chain links Canada to more than one continent.

“I am confident there won’t be any reduction in supply in the procurement contracts we signed,” Leblanc told a news conference.

The same diverse sources have been built into contracts signed with other companies that are seeking authorization to deliver vaccines to Canadians, he said, without further specifying.

Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, which requires strict “ultracold” minus 80C shipping and storage conditions, is the COVID-19 vaccine that is closest to being approved by Health Canada, with authorization expected this week.

An initial shipment of 249,000 doses will start to be delivered to Canada from Pfizer’s Belgium plant starting next week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said Tuesday that a regulatory decision is still on track for “very soon.”

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who is in charge of the logistical operation of shipping vaccines to the provinces, said dry runs have begun. Thermal shipping boxes — filled with dry ice but not actual vaccine doses, and containing sensitive temperature monitors — were flown from Belgium and scheduled to arrive Tuesday and Wednesday at 14 designated sites across the country.

It’s a dress rehearsal to see how provinces manage the handling of the vaccine, to ensure that the proper temperatures are maintained throughout the journey.

Fortin said Tuesday that it was too early to identify any “failure or friction points in the critical path” that were met along the way.

The news that a small preliminary batch of 249,000 doses would begin to arrive before the end of December was met with a shrug by Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who said there won’t be enough to vaccinate seniors in Sherbrooke. In the Commons he demanded to know how much the federal government is paying for “this cosmetic exercise.”

Tonda MacCharles

TORONTO STAR