Alberta pharmacists frustrated, caught off guard by changes to COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Some Alberta pharmacists are frustrated by the lack of communication from the province about recent changes to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout they say caught them off guard.

Premier says sudden supply changes also surprised province

A staff member at the Guardian Snowdon Pharmacy in Toronto prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Alberta pharmacies are administering shots of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca as part of the province's COVID-19 vaccine rollout. (Sam Nar/CBC) (Sam Nar/CBC)

Some Alberta pharmacists are frustrated by the lack of communication from the province about recent changes to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout they say caught them off guard.

"It's been really frustrating, partly because the communication coming from Alberta Health has been really poorly managed," said Kim Henke, pharmacist and owner of Bearspaw Family Pharmacy in south Edmonton.

The surprises have been stacking up:

  • A slew of unexpected shipments last week to Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer had some pharmacists scrambling to get shots in arms;
  • Other locations that expected Moderna weeks ago had yet to receive it this week, despite being listed as having supply on Alberta Blue Cross's website;
  • The early arrival of an AstraZeneca shipment last week was announced as being available in pharmacies, though many of the stores it was destined for hadn't received it yet;
  • The province didn't give pharmacists a heads up before announcing Tuesday that eligibility for shots would be significantly expanded, and that pharmacies will soon start taking walk-in appointments.

Henke was notified three weeks ago that she would get a shipment of 200 doses of Moderna. But the shipment never arrived, and in the meantime her store was listed as having doses. Her waiting list grew from 125 on Monday to 500 on Wednesday as she told customers she wasn't sure when it would arrive.

Henke's doses arrived Thursday, and she quickly started contacting clients and thawing vials. She said she's concerned about the plan to allow for walk-in appointments, given that public health restrictions will now allow fewer people in retail spaces.

A vial of Moderna vaccine next to cotton swabs and other vaccination supplies. Moderna supply to Alberta pharmacies has been shaky, while Pfizer shipments have been arriving as planned. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

In Lac La Biche, Crescent I.D.A. Drugs pharmacist and owner Zicki Eludin said Thursday he has only received 300 doses of Moderna but has a waitlist of more than 900, with more calls coming in now that the province has announced expanded eligibility. 

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"It's put us in a difficult place because we're spending a lot of time explaining to people why they can't get their vaccine within a week or two because we can't tell them when we're going to get a vaccine," he said.

Bruce Winston, president of the Alberta's Pharmacists Association, said paying for security and extra staff needed to deal with vaccine logistics and administration is up to pharmacies. The province is paying pharmacists $25 for each dose of COVID-19 vaccine they administer.

Rapid changes

While shipments of Pfizer-BioNTech seem to be arriving as expected, Winston said, things have been less smooth when it comes to Moderna deliveries. He said he has also heard about frustration that locations set to receive AstraZeneca were listed on the Blue Cross site — prompting a deluge of phone calls — even though many of those locations hadn't received their shipments yet.

"Up until today, Alberta Health has been very clear with us not to book appointments until we see the vaccine," he said. "Things have been changing so rapidly that it's hard for me to point fingers, but we were behind the curve in the information that we had, that we could share with people."

Winston also has concerns about adding walk-in appointments as an option. He said most pharmacies have invested in digital waitlists and appointment management systems to stay on top of the process, and the last thing he wants to see is long lineups forming at a time when COVID-19 cases are climbing and pharmacies have to keep store capacity at 15 per cent occupancy.

"We're carefully matching our appointments with our allotment of vaccine, and I've spoken to a number of colleagues, none of whom can figure out what the benefit of taking walk ins are right now," he said. 

'This is an emergency'

During a new conference Thursday, Premier Jason Kenney said the province's co-operation with pharmacies has been exemplary, and he hopes they can understand that the province is trying to adapt to an ever-changing delivery schedule of vaccine shipments, which is what happened with the early arrival of 175,000 doses of AstraZeneca on Thursday.

"As soon as I learned about this, I'll be blunt, my instructions to the health department was we're not going to keep those stuck in freezers just because they arrived early," he said. "I want an action plan by Monday to get those out as quick as we can. This is an emergency, we need to act accordingly."

As for concerns about adding a walk-in option, Kenney said he understands there will be logistical challenges and it will take time for pharmacies to add that option.

"We don't want doses sitting on the shelves," he said. "And the pharmacy partnerships are a key way of speeding up the vaccine program as quick as we can."

In an emailed statement, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said walk-in appointments will only happen in locations where it is safe to do so, and the province is working closely with pharmacies to figure out the details.

McMillan said pharmacies are encouraged to update their next available appointment data online, and said the government recognizes that irregular deliveries can create frustration for everyone. 

"More than 34 per cent of our total vaccine supply since the pandemic began has been delivered since April 1 – more than 370,000 doses," he said. "With supply increasing, we need to adapt our approach. It has become imperative that pharmacies book appointments based on anticipated supply to make sure that we are administering doses as quickly as possible."

McMillian said Alberta pharmacies have administered about 196,000 doses of vaccine so far, while Alberta Health Services has administered about 586,000. However, pharmacies didn't start giving doses until later into the province's rollout.

-with files from Nola Keeler and Adrienne Pan