COVID-19 vaccine delays add another layer of angst for older Albertans

Uncertainty about COVID-19 vaccine availability is taking a toll on older Albertans who have been living in the shadow of the potentially deadly coronavirus for a full year.

Alberta government is expecting no Pfizer-BioNTech shipments this week and 78 per cent cut next week

Allan Singleton-Wood, 88, has a number of serious health problems including COPD. He's also had two strokes and a recent heart attack requiring surgery. Singleton-Wood, who lives on his own and has been unable to visit with his family in-person for nine months, calls the vaccine delay stressful and frustrating. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Uncertainty about COVID-19 vaccine availability is taking a toll on older Albertans who have been living in the shadow of the potentially deadly coronavirus for a full year.

The Alberta government recently announced all Albertans over 75 — who were scheduled to start receiving their shots in February — will have to wait due to manufacturing delays at Pfizer. The postponement also impacts First Nations and Métis people over the age of 65.

It's another layer of angst on top of a year of living in fear and isolation.

"It's terribly, terribly stressful," said Allan Singleton-Wood, 88, who lives alone in Calgary and hasn't been able to visit with his daughter or grandchildren in nine months.

Singleton-Wood is particularly high risk because he has a number of serious health problems including COPD. He's also suffered two strokes and recently had surgery after a heart attack.

"It doesn't make sense to me that I'm just stuck here and goodness knows how long it's going to be," he said.

'Apprehension and confusion'

At the Kerby Centre, which provides programming and services for Calgary seniors, CEO Larry Mathieson is hearing similar concerns every day.

"A lot of them have really essentially not been out of their house for almost a year. So the news of a vaccine coming I think was very exciting ... the delays have certainly created some apprehension and confusion," he said.

A trip to the supermarket can be terrifying for someone over 75, according to Mathieson, who is concerned about the mental health impacts as the pandemic drags on.

"We're very worried ... When you're fearful that going to the grocery store or the drugstore may actually be a life-threatening situation, you tend to pay attention to that and you tend to stay home. But it is very much against our human nature," said Mathieson .

Hope disrupted

There is no question the risk of serious illness — or even death — is much higher for people over age 75.

And the provincial government's plan to start vaccinating the priority group in February offered promise.

"This vaccine is one of the first glimmers of hope that they've had for getting back to normal, getting to see their families again, not worrying about catching COVID and the likelihood of getting severely ill or dying from it," said Kirsten Fiest, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Calgary.

Kirsten Fiest, University of Calgary epidemiologist and assistant professor, says the vaccine offered a glimmer of hope for older Albertans and the delay compounds the stress they're already experiencing due to fear and isolation. (Kirsten Fiest)

 "So I think the uncertainty around when they're going to be vaccinated just adds to that stress and compounds the already difficult year that they've had."

Once vaccine supplies are flowing again, Fiest said she wants Alberta Health Services and the provincial government to work faster to get them into the arms of high priority groups.

"Vaccination needs to be the top priority right now … we should be vaccinating 24/7," she said.

"Frankly, I do think that deaths right now are starting to be preventable. We have a vaccine and we need to be giving it to people," she said.

Variant adds to urgency

This sense of urgency ballooned on Monday, as Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced Alberta has identified its first case of a more highly transmissible coronavirus variant with no known link to travel. 

"Canada is being hit harder than others with reduced vaccine shipments. We're receiving zero shipments of Pfizer vaccine this week and we're expecting shipments next week to be cut by 78 per cent," he said.

"We need more doses now and we need them more urgently due to the increased threat posed by the new variants. We continue to advocate to the federal government and as soon as we get more doses we will get them into the arms of Albertans."

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday the identification of a coronavirus variant case with no known link to travel makes the need for vaccine supply more urgent in this province. (CBC)

According to Shandro, approximately 250,000 people are eilgible in Phase 1B of the now paused vaccine roll-out  which was set to include all seniors over 75 and First Nations and Métis people over 65.

"For us to be able to do that we need the vaccines to arrive in Alberta first."

As of Tuesday afternoon, Alberta had administered 99,814 doses of the COVID-19.

Back in his Calgary condo, where he's spent nearly a year on his own, Singleton-Wood has spent hours writing to health officials and making calls as he tries to sort out when he might be able to get his first dose

He's left questioning why the federal and provincial governments have been unable to keep the vaccine supplies flowing.

"I don't understand how we can be this disorganized," he said. "The lack of transparency, the confusion, the constantly changing stories, the constantly changing times."

Despite the questions and frustration, Singleton-Wood — a life-long musician — has turned to his music to cope. He plays the piano to pass the time and even released a new CD during the pandemic.

"I'm a musician so I can enjoy myself a little with my music, you know?"


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.


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