Pharmacies 'overwhelmed' by early response to AstraZeneca rollout in B.C.'s Lower Mainland
150 pharmacies were enlisted to distribute 13,500 vaccines, but getting a dose was a challenge for many
A line of people stretched outside the Shoppers Drug Mart at Vancouver's Kingsgate Mall on Wednesday afternoon, made up of hopefuls eager to get their first shot of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.
But just before 1:30 p.m. PT, their hopes were dashed. A security guard told the crowd the store's pharmacy had run out of its supply.
"We just have to be patient," said Catherine Bussey, who left without an appointment.
"I can't really get angry. It's not going to serve any point. I'll keep coming back and trying."
Scenes like these played out across B.C.'s Lower Mainland on Wednesday, the first day residents between the ages of 55 and 65 in the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions were able to book an appointment to receive the vaccine.
Revamped rollout marred by confusion
The province announced the update Tuesday after pausing the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under the age of 55, following the advice of Canada's vaccine advisory committee as it investigates very rare instances of blood clots in some immunized patients.
B.C.'s revamped rollout was marred by instant demand and confusion.
A statement from the Ministry of Health said appointments would open Wednesday, but London Drugs posted a message Tuesday saying all bookings at its three designated sites had already been filled.
The company later apologized and said the response to the wider vaccination program had been "overwhelming."
"As soon as the news was public, all of our Lower Mainland British Columbia stores became inundated with customers wanting to book appointments."
13,500 doses immediately distributed
Health Minister Adrian Dix defended the rollout Wednesday, noting the province enlisted 150 pharmacies to immediately distribute 13,500 doses.
"I think that is an extraordinarily quick reaction," he said.
Dix said 112 locations have online booking systems, while the rest offer drop-in. The minister said 43,000 additional doses will be sent to pharmacies as part of a shipment from the federal government later this week.
Dix said the province is administering the shots in the Lower Mainland where case numbers are surging, and to keep the rollout efficient.
Annette Robinson, president of the B.C. Pharmacy Association, said some locations started to administer shots Wednesday, but most would distribute the doses Thursday and Friday.
Robinson said pharmacies were chosen based on how many flu shots they were able to administer this past influenza season.
"We are prepared for these types of injections," she said on CBC's BC Today.
'I'll get it when I get it'
Calls to several Vancouver-area Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies listed as offering COVID-19 vaccinations were met with busy signals Wednesday, while the Rexall pharmacies provided an online wait-list.
Laurie Dover said she struggled to book an appointment online and rushed to Kingsgate Mall after hearing on the radio about walk-ins.
"I'm seeing if I can get my name in here," she said, before being turned away shortly after.
Monica Moberg stayed optimistic about not getting her dose Wednesday.
"I do not necessarily need to be the very first person in the neighbourhood to get my shot," she said. "I'll get it when I get it and that's fine with me."
Dr. Birinder Narang, a family physician and vice-chair of the Burnaby Division of Family Practice board, said he was excited about the demand, amid concerns about hesitancy toward the AstraZeneca vaccine.
But he said he was wary that many health-care providers learned about the plan through the media.
"When we're approached with questions about it, we can't really give informed answers," he said. "And that makes any health-care provider uncomfortable."
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a news release that the vaccine remains highly effective and its benefits for those over 55 far outweigh the risks of COVID-19 infection.
Vaccines in B.C. are currently available for anyone 73 and older, Indigenous people over 18, and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
Front-line workers who were to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine remain a priority and will get their shots as more vaccine supply arrives, Henry and Dix said.
The province says it remains on schedule to administer a COVID-19 vaccine dose to everyone who is eligible and wants one before Canada Day.
With files from Raluca Tomulescu, BC Today and The Canadian Press