Sask. health minister defends himself after federal agency casts doubt on vaccine remarks

The health minister had taken sharp criticism for not rolling out the vaccine in Saskatchewan’s northeast region and for the slow pace of immunizations.

Residents preparing hampers La Ronge during the first wave in 2020. The Moderna vaccine is being distributed in La Ronge this week. Photo by Michael Bramadat-Willcock

Saskatchewan health minister Paul Merriman is defending his position after a statement by the Public Health Agency of Canada cast doubt on his assertion that the province was required to ‘hold back’ second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“The manufacturer and the Public Health Agency of Canada required us to hold back the second shots. Going forward, we will no longer be doing that,” Merriman said on Wednesday.  

But those remarks were contradicted by the health agency.

“There is no requirement from the federal government to hold back the second dose in the vaccine series,” Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson André Gagnon told the Prince Albert Daily Herald in a written statement. 

“However, Health Canada recommends that Canadians receive both doses of the same vaccine, as close as possible to the authorized dosing regimen for each vaccine.”

The health minister had taken sharp criticism from northern and Indigenous leaders for not rolling out the vaccine in Saskatchewan’s northeast region, and for the slow pace of immunizations.

“It is imperative that in the coming weeks and months as more vaccines are available that allocations of the vaccine are made in direct consultation with the communities that are most impacted and not by someone in the provincial ministry in the south,” Lac La Ronge Indian Band Chief Tammy Cook-Searson said. 

Merriman said again on Friday that Saskatchewan needs more vaccines in order for the rollout to run smoothly and that Premier Scott Moe raised the issue with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a phone call with premiers on Thursday.

He said Trudeau promised “to make every effort to deliver more vaccines more quickly” and that this would ensure the provinces have a reliable schedule of vaccine shipments and a better plan for distribution.

“This is the point that I was trying to make on Wednesday; that if we get more vaccines we can distribute them to more locations,” Merriman said. 

“If we’re in more locations we can do more shots at the same time and get more people vaccinated each day.”  

The Daily Herald reached out to the office of federal health minister Patty Hajdu on Thursday. A spokesperson promised a response that was not forthcoming by press time on Friday. 

Merriman said he wasn’t trying to blame the federal government for hiccups in the rollout of vaccines for COVID-19 but that it was on federal advice that the province applied that ‘hold back’ policy.  

“I was just simply reiterating what the federal government had told us to do which was hold back the second dose. Up until this week they were still telling us the same thing,” Merriman said.  

Merriman said he confirmed that “instructions and advice” was received from the Public Health Agency of Canada on Dec. 9 and quoted correspondence to that effect.

“Saskatchewan public health officials took this instruction seriously and so did I… I commend them for their diligence in following these instructions,” Merriman said.

“They were intended to assist the province in optimizing the initial delivery of vaccines that we have never worked with before.”

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is updating its analysis of whether it is better to widely distribute all vaccine doses right away to immunize more people or hold ‘back doses’ to fully immunize in two doses. It is advised that as many people as possible be vaccinated with each delivery. 

“Provincial and territorial governments will have to determine the best way to manage supply based on their own analyses and logistics,” Gagnon said. 

Merriman said Saskatchewan has now chosen to administer all vaccines as they arrive in the province and will no longer hold back doses. He said second doses are being administered on arrival, too. 

“We are now vaccinating at a number of different communities which means we can get more shots done more quickly.  Yesterday vaccinations were being delivered in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and several communities in the far north,” Merriman said.

“This week we will be starting in more communities including Melfort and La Ronge. Next week we expect another shipment of both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which means we can start vaccinating in even more locations.”