Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. to have first COVID-19 vaccines next week after successful trial shipment

Newfoundland and Labrador moves another step closer in COVID-19 vaccine preparation as Health Minister John Haggie says a thermal shipper — used to keep doses at a consistent temperature during transport — arrived Wednesday morning.

'The system works,' says Health Minister John Haggie

Newfoundland and Labrador is prepared to receive its first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine next week. (Frank Augstein/Pool photo/The Associated Press)

Newfoundland and Labrador moved another step closer in COVID-19 vaccine preparation as Health Minister John Haggie says a thermal shipper — used to keep doses at a consistent temperature during transport — arrived Wednesday morning.

"The dummy cargo was kept appropriately cold and the system works," said Haggie during Wednesday's COVID-19 briefing. 

"This now means we are poised, having received Health Canada's approval to use the vaccine, to have our first deliveries next week."

Health Canada made the approval announcement Wednesday morning after a two-month review of the Pfizer-BioNTech clinical trial data.

Haggie said the province's vaccine committee also met Wednesday morning with distribution plans "significantly advanced." By the time the vaccine arrives, he said, the province will be in a position to "highlight" high-risk groups who will receive the first doses. 

"The first doses will be done around the centre at which the vaccine arrives, and given our logistics currently that will be based in St. John's for at least the first two shipments," Haggie said. 

"We will be keeping a very close eye on the situation on a regular basis to make sure that we stay on track and we are able to take advantage of any new advances."

Other brands of COVID-19 vaccines will follow the Pfizer-BioNTech product once approved by Health Canada. Those vaccines will also be easier to distribute, said Haggie. There is no timeline for those yet, he said, but could extend into the summer of next year. 

Questions remain, concerns answered 

While Newfoundland and Labrador prepares for its first shipment of the vaccine, other provinces are doing the same, with their own regulations in place. 

Ontario, for example, will issue proof-of-vaccination cards to those who have received one. 

On Wednesday Premier Andrew Furey said that idea is something this province's vaccination team is considering and will provide an update when a decision is made. 

The team is made up of Haggie, Fitzgerald, staff from regional health authorities, a representative from cabinet secretariat, Indigenous Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster, Municipalities Minister Derek Bennett, Cmdr. David Botting of the Royal Canadian Navy and Dr. Natalie Bridger.

Health Minister John Haggie says vaccine distribution will be centered in St. John's for the first two shipments. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Health regulators in the U.K. have warned some people against getting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine if they have a history of serious allergic reactions. 

Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, says it's a wait and see situation as the evidence is still very early. 

"We don't know the nature of these vaccines, that will be something that the national advisory committee on immunizations will be looking at closely and will evaluate those concerns," Fitzgerald said. 

"But Health Canada has approved this vaccine today and considers it safe and effective to use."

When asked about people avoiding the vaccine in the early stages for fear of side-effects, both Fitzgerald and Furey defended Health Canada. 

Furey said there has to be trust in the health regulator.

"These are the same credentialed people that have proven that other vaccines are safe," he said. "People need to have confidence in the bureaucracy and the rigour of the scientific process to enable them to even get to Health Canada in the first place."

Rule changes? Not so much

For anyone who does receive a vaccine in the coming weeks, rules for physical distancing, mask wearing, travelling and others will still be in place. 

Fitzgerald noted the coming vaccine needs two doses to be effective, and even after the second dose, public health measures will stay in place until a "significant portion" of the population is vaccinated. 

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says COVID-19 public health measures will remain in place at least until a significant portion of the province is vaccinated. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

"That will have to be upwards of 80 to 85 per cent in order for us to have what we call herd immunity," she said. 

"This vaccine will help protect the vulnerable; that's the goal of our vaccination right now. These first doses of vaccine that we're getting, and the first quarter of next year, it's really about protecting those vulnerable people and making sure we have a cocoon around them, so to speak."

Fitzgerald said each person is different, and it's unknown how individuals will respond to the vaccine. 

"I'm sure there will be studies that will be looking at that as time goes on. But even with a 90 per cent effective rate we're still looking at a certain portion of the population who may not respond," said Fitzgerald. 

"This is a very, very exciting thing, that we're getting a vaccine. I am ecstatic. There were tears in my eyes earlier today. There's no doubt that this is very exciting but we need to be realistic and we need to understand that this journey is not over yet and we've got a few more months where we have to hang tough."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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