Regina health care workers first to receive COVID vaccines in Sask.

Regina-based health care workers to receive vaccine as part of pilot; residents over 80, remote residents, health care workers and long-term care homes priority in phase 1

Photo courtesy NIAID/Flickr.
  • Pilot vaccination among health care workers planned this month
  • Phase 1 set for next three months to focus on most vulnerable
  • Phase 2 with mass vaccination scheduled to begin in April

Frontline health care workers in Regina will be the first in the province to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, the province said Wednesday.

Vaccines for about 1,950 people are expected to arrive by Dec. 15. A pilot vaccination will see the vaccine administered at Regina General Hospital to health care workers providing direct care to COVID-19 patients. The first recipients will be health care workers in ICUs, emergency departments and COVID units at Regina General and Pasqua hospitals and staff at testing and assessment centres.

Moments before the press conference began, Health Canada approved Pfizer’s vaccine.

Recipients will receive their second dose 21 days after the administration of the first dose.

The province‘s vaccine delivery plan is focusing on immunizing priority populations at a higher risk of exposure or of serious illness first, such as health care workers, elderly residents in care homes, seniors over 80 and residents in northern remote communities.

The province estimates that 30,584 long-term and personal care home residents and staff will need to be immunized in phase one, along with between 10,000 and 15,000 health care workers in emergency departments, intensive care units, COVID wards and testing and assessment staff. Phase one also includes all residents over the age of 80, followed by those in the 75-79 age range, and then the 70-74 age range as supplies allow.

They estimate that the province has 51,302 residents over the age of 80, 32,474 in the 75-79 age range and 47,343 in the 70-74 age range.

The fourth priority in phase one is residents over age 50 living in remote/northern Saskatchewan, about 8,921 people.

The first phase of vaccinations is expected to begin late this year, with 202,052 doses expected within the first quarter of 2021.

The province expects to have 10,725 of the Pfizer vaccine weekly. It’s currently finalizing its weekly allocations of the Moderna vaccine.

For Moderna, the second dosage occurs 28 days after the first dosage is administered.

Phase two of the vaccination plan is expected to begin in April and will continue priority population immunization while providing widespread vaccine access to immunize the general population. Distribution in the second phase will occur throughout the province at public health clinics and other vaccination delivery sites, such as pharmacies and doctor’s offices, depending on vaccine availability. Phase two will begin sooner if the province’s vaccine allocation allows.

Members of the Public Service Commission will be redeployed to support administrative tasks and data entry at vaccine sites. Training will begin as soon as possible.

The province said it has plans in development surrounding safe storage of vaccines, sequenced distribution, public communication of availability, contingency planning and statistical reporting of vaccines administered.

Reliable data collection is crucial to ensure that individuals are getting their second dose on time, SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said.

The province has an information system for vaccination and immunization registration called Panorama.

“We will be using this system to prepare vaccination administration across the province and it will support and remind residents to follow up for their appropriate second dose when it is required,” Livingstone said.

Those who get the vaccination will also receive a record of both the first and second dose.

Temperature requirements pose an issue. The Pfizer vaccine requires storage temperatures of -70 C, while the Moderna vaccine requires storage at -20 C.

The federal government has allocated seven regular and one ultra-low temperature freezer to the province. Provincially, the Ministry of Health is awaiting the delivery of 25 portable ultra-low temperature freezers to assist with vaccine shipment. Additional regular freezers will be purchased to store and transport Moderna’s vaccine.

The province is also planning a “significant” public relations campaign to ensure accurate and timely information is provided to residents.

The communication plan includes a dedicated web page, weekly public briefings and daily updates through COVID-19 news releases.

The campaign will also include print, TV, radio, digital, social and billboard ads. It’s set to begin this month and increase during phase 1.

 “Residents of this province can rest assured that our government will dedicate all the resources needed to provide them with the vaccine,” Health Minister Paul Merriman said in a statement. “We are putting in place the human and financial resources to successfully distribute vaccines and get Saskatchewan residents immunized against COVID-19.”

“Once mass immunization has occurred, we will all be able to get closer to our normal routines,” Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said. “But in the meantime, everyone must continue following the basic advice – frequent hand-washing, physical distancing, masking and staying home if you have symptoms, and closely following public health orders.”

Shahab said details about restrictions will emerge depending on the vaccine effectiveness in the “field setting.”

“We’ll be watching the vaccine effectiveness in populations as they get vaccinated. With any communicable disease, you can’t achieve community immunity or herd immunity until all of us are vaccinated.”

“Hopefully we can start relaxing some of the measures as we understand how effective the vaccine is over time,”Shahab added.

Vaccination in remote Indigenous communities

Health officials also touched on the complexity of delivering vaccines to rural and remote areas of the province, like First Nations and Indigenous communities.

Shahab said the initial pilot in Regina will help the province get comfortable with handling the product and help them determine if it can be transported in small distances.

Temperature is another issue as well. Since the Moderna vaccine only needs to be stored at -20 C, it is easier to transport to remote communities.

Pfizer will be delivering the vaccines to specific areas where it will be administered.

Dr. Tania Diener, medical health officer of immunizations with the SHA agreed that the Pfizer vaccine is complex.

“Things might change but at this point in time we cannot move the vaccine once it’s been delivered to a specific location…it needs to stay there. There’s also very complex rules in terms of dry ice, how many times a day you can open it, how long after opening it it can be viable in the freezer,” Diener said.

Diener agreed that the Moderna vaccine is more suitable to transport to rural communities.

Shahab said as Moderna supplies come in, the far north will be a priority for distribution.

“I think there is a specific prioritization but for the far north, it may be at a lower age. We are in discussions it may be be 50 and older for the far north Indigenous populations.”

With files from Kelly Skjerven