British Columbia

Health professionals cautiously optimistic as B.C.'s COVID-19 vaccination program begins in earnest

As of Feb. 17, more than 175,000 immunization shots have been delivered to B.C. residents, a number which should more than triple by the end of March.

Health minister cautions, 'we're not receiving level of supply that will allow any kind of return to normal'

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 22, 2020. (Province of British Columbia/Twitter)

After a month of delays, British Columbia is set to see the number of people vaccinated dramatically increase in the weeks ahead. 

"I would hope people would start to feel a bit encouraged. I know I certainly am," said Dr. Julie Bettinger, a vaccine safety scientist at B.C. Children's Hospital. 

Between 54,000 and 65,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are scheduled to be shipped to the province in each of the next seven weeks, putting the province back on track to vaccinate approximately 10 per cent of the population by the end of March.

That will include all seniors over the age of 80, Indigenous seniors over the age of 65, hospital staff, community GPs and medical specialists not yet immunized, staff in community home support settings and nurses caring for seniors. 

As of Feb. 17, more than 175,000 immunization shots have been delivered to B.C. residents, a number which should more than triple by the end of March.

Bettinger said one of her reasons for optimism is data out of Israel — where more than 40 per cent of people have already been given at least one shot — showing the vaccine is as effective in the community as it was in clinical trials. 

Vaccine hesitancy? 

On Thursday, the province will release its first detailed data on the vaccination campaign to date, which has centred so far on long-term care facilities and remote Indigenous communities.

Experts say it will take some time before B.C. can assess whether people's hesitancy in taking the vaccine will be a threat to the province acquiring herd immunity. That's because the groups currently being offered the vaccine are much less likely to refuse it compared to the public at large, and because this vaccine drive is being targeted toward adults, not children.

"This is something that in some ways hasn't been done since polio," said Heidi Tworek, a UBC professor and expert in health communication.

She said that as the vaccine rolls out to the general population, it will be important to ramp up communication that isn't just news releases and press conferences with Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. 

"We need to work together with civil society to make sure that these kinds of messages are delivered in ways … that are culturally appropriate, that are in languages that they understand, in ways that make sense to them and are from people whom they trust," said Tworek.

Chance of delays 

Those plans are subject to there being no more delays in getting the promised vaccine supply — something that is not guaranteed. 

"I'm cautiously optimistic with a big C cautious," said Mahesh Nagarajan, a professor of operations and logistics at UBC's Sauder School of Business.

"It's not as simple as people think. There's been a lot of production uncertainty … can it be done? It absolutely can be done, but what we haven't done is figuring out what the hiccups are." 

Canada is once again getting a reduced number of vaccines from Moderna this month, and while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the company is committed to meeting its promised two million doses by the end of the March, the government's own vaccination page has no update for Moderna beyond February. 

For his part, Health Minister Adrian Dix expressed full confidence on Wednesday that B.C. would get its promised supply — though cautioned it wouldn't change anything for the vast majority of people for some time. 

"We're not receiving the level of supply that will allow any kind of return to normal."