Mass vaccination plan to roll out by age, province says

A nurse draws a dose from a vaccine vial in Prince Albert. Photo courtesy SHA.

Saskatchewan’s mass immunization plan will roll out based on age, the province said Tuesday.

Health Minister Paul Merriman and Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone unveiled the second phase of the vaccination plan during a press conference in Regina. The phase has no timeline at this point as it’s dependent on how quickly Saskatchewan can receive doses of the vaccine.

The province is currently in phase one of its vaccination rollout, which is focused on seniors over the age of 70, long-term care and frontline health care workers.

That phase, which includes 190,000 residents, is only 12 per cent complete. Phase two can’t begin until the first phase is over.

The province hopes they can begin the mass immunization plan sometime in April. It will all depend on how many doses can be procured by the federal government, they said.

“Depending on the number of doses … our goal will be to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible and to do so in a way that reduces severe outcomes as much as possible,” Merriman said.

“We will be focusing on age as the primary risk factor. We know that age is the number one factor in determining severe outcomes from COVID-19.

That means that once phase two begins, it will kick off with residents in their 60s, and then in their 50s, and so on in ten-year increments until everyone who wants to be vaccinated can be.

If someone chooses to pass on a vaccine when their age group is called, they will be able to get it at a later date. Once you become eligible, the province says, you don’t lose your eligibility. At the same time, they will also prioritize clinically vulnerable people and those living in congregate living settings such as group homes or emergency shelters.

The province has identified hundreds of locations for vaccine delivery, including vaccination clinics with pre-booked appointments, drive-thru and mobile vaccination centres and partnerships with pharmacies and community clinics.

In all, SHA will operate 226 clinics.  They estimate that up to 2,200 people will be involved in delivering phase two vaccines. That doesn’t include any community clinics or pharmacies that might also get involved.

“We are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach that will allow us to do thousands of shots per day,” Merriman said.

In the north, there will be 62 clinics, while the far north will have 27. Prince Albert, Melfort, North Battleford and Lloydminster will all play host to a mass immunization clinic, mobile clinic and drive-thru clinic. Regionally, Christopher Lake, Shellbrook, Duck Lake, Birch Hills, Canwood, Christopher Lake and Candle Lake will also host immunization clinics.

Even remote communities such as Uranium City, Fond du Lac, Stony Rapids and Black Lake are set to host immunization clinics.

But in order to distribute vaccines far and wide, the province needs a reliable supply

“We need more vaccines and they can’t get here soon enough,” Merriman said.

He said that the federal government has vowed that its supply of vaccines will increase in the coming weeks. The province is counting on it, though it’s hard to plan ahead as it doesn’t know what procurement will look like after March.

“We’re nowhere near our target goal in phase one, almost exclusively because we haven’t received the vaccine to deliver,” Livingstone said.

“That will continue to be a challenge without knowing what vaccine is coming past quarter 1 of this year. For us, the big challenge is how you give people vaccines when there is none to give.”

Livingstone said the sporadic supply of shots to date is the reason why parts of the province have been more heavily vaccinated while some areas have yet to receive any first doses.

“If we had an unlimited supply of vaccines we would be rolling this out evenly across the province,” Merriman said.

“We don’t so we’ve been targeting some areas that have some challenges. This has been a challenge and will continue to be something we will continue to work on to make sure it’s as fair and equitable as possible across the province.”

When it’s time to roll out the doses, the province will contact people directly as much as they can, but also use local media and social media to inform residents of their turn to get vaccinated. In March, the province will roll out an online and phone-based scheduling clinic for vaccination appointments.

Once people get vaccinated, they will be provided with a wallet card of their vaccination record, which will also be available through eHealth Saskatchewan and the MySaskHealth record.

The province will be using the lessons it’s learned so far from this pandemic to help the vaccination process run as smoothly as possible.

Just like with contact tracing teams, where only limited positions are served by health care workers, vaccination clinics will use staff without medical backgrounds to take care of administrative and other non-injection related tasks.

“We have the … opportunity with immunization so people that can put needles in arms are putting needles in arms, they’re not directing traffic,” Livingstone said.

He added that the province will also look at professions such as public health staff, relief workers, ems, pharmacists, medical students, retired health care professionals, First nations health staff and “nontraditional immunizers” to administer the vaccines.

They’ll also rely on business and community partners to help administer the clinics.

“We’ve had a number of organizations reach out to say we’re willing to help,” Livingstone said.

He added that the testing process has taught SHA that not everyone likes to make appointments, which is why having drive-thru and other no-appointment clinics is important.

Merriman defends decisions to not prioritize front-line workers in phase 2, ramp up talk about vaccines now

During Tuesday’s announcement, Merriman also fielded questions about the timing of the vaccination plan announcement and the decision to leave certain groups off of the priority list.

Several frontline groups have been advocating for priority vaccine access when mass vaccinations begin.

“This is the fastest way to get vaccines,” Merriman said.

“I’ve heard from all groups lobbying to get included in the sequence. They’re all valid points. What we’re looking at is getting a large number of vaccines in a short period of time. The best way to do that .. is to look at age categories.”

As for timing, Livingstone said the province would be ready whenever vaccine supply ramps up. With the federal liberals vowing enough vaccines for everyone who wants one by September, he’s anticipating that supply will be in place before the fall.   With so many questions unanswered, the province says now is the time to start informing people about what to expect when it comes time to get vaccinated. They said information will continue through as many channels as possible, including dispelling myths about the vaccine, in an effort to get as many residents vaccinated as possible.

“This is how we will protect ourselves and those around us,” Merriman said. “This is how we will get through this pandemic and back to a normal life. We’re very confident in this plan. I’m extremely encouraged … that people are so interested in the vaccination process. I’m glad that is happening and I want that to continue to happen. We want to keep them as informed as possible and we want to give them the realistic idea of when they can be getting vaccinated.”