Saskatoon to begin frontline COVID vaccinations next week

Heather Witzel-Garnhum, nurse clinician, injects Dr. Jeffrey Betcher, critical care lead, with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Regina General Hospital on Dec. 15, 2020 (Photo courtesy Government of Saskatchewan)

Saskatchewan is getting more vaccines from Pfizer earlier than it originally anticipated, meaning the first phase of vaccine rollout can begin next week.

The province had originally planned to only begin the vaccination pilot with a small number of doses in Regina this month, but regular deliveries of the first COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in Canada are already set to begin.

Next week, 1,950 health care workers in Saskatoon ICUs, ERs, COVID units, testing and assessment centres will receive their first dose of the vaccine at Merlis Belcher Place. They will get their second dose three to four weeks later.

The first vaccinations in the province were conducted Tuesday and streamed live. Since then, 250 people have received their first dose, and 301 more were slated to receive it Thursday.

Those immunizations are part of a pilot in Regina to ensure the province is ready for more widespread vaccine delivery. It’s been expanded to key frontline staff in the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency, EMS and anesthetists. Additional groups are being considered.

These additional groups have been identified given they are also at higher-risk of contracting COVID-19, and because of their work with at-risk patients,” SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said. “Of course, our supplies are limited, so we will look to continue providing additional doses to these groups as more vaccine is received.”

But while Saskatchewan declared in a press release that the beginning of phase one was an “early holiday gift,” residents outside the two biggest centres are out of luck until another vaccine candidate receives approval.

That’s because of logistics. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70 C, which is colder than commercial freezers can handle. The Moderna vaccine, which is expected to be approved by Health Canada shortly, can be stored at warmer temperatures of around -20 C, which a commercial freezer can maintain.

The target for phase 2, or widespread public vaccination, remains in April.

The four-month gap between now and then “Underlines the need to take precautions seriously,” Livingstone said during a press conference Thursday.

“We must continue to follow public health orders while the vaccination program is being delivered. It’s also important to know that our system is still severely strained we will still need help from the people of this province.”

Another restriction, for the time being, has been placed on the vaccine by Pfizer. Early access, the SHA said, is restricted to delivery at an acute care facility.

Those restrictions could change over time and give more flexibility. Until then, frontline workers in cities such as Prince Albert will have to wait for the Moderna vaccine, or others in development, before they can line up for their vaccination.

The province said it hasn’t received any confirmation of shipments beyond the first two headed for Regina and Saskatoon, but that it expects it will shortly.