'I haven't had coffee with my wife since March': Sask. long-term care resident excited to be given vaccine

Health care workers will be first in line to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine doses that will start arriving in Saskatchewan next week, followed by long-term care residents.

Health care workers will be first in line to receive vaccine, followed by long-term care residents

Sherbrooke Community Centre resident Ross McKay and director of care Deb Schick are excited a vaccine is on the way. (Eric Anderson)

Health care workers will be first in line to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine doses that will start arriving in Saskatchewan next week, with long-term care residents close behind.

For 74-year-old Ross McKay the vaccine offers a chance to see his wife Carol in person again early in the new year.

"I might be able to go outside, or away from here. I've been married for 53 years and I haven't had coffee with my wife since last March," said McKay, who lives in Sherbrooke Community Centre in Saskatoon.

"I would give her a hug and then I'd go for coffee."

Deb Schick, director of care at Sherbrooke, said the vaccine will help ease restrictions and stress.

"I'm beyond excited to know it's coming and it's coming so soon," Schick said. "Our elders will feel safe and be able to interact again.

"Lots and lots of hugging. It will just be a hugfest!"

A pilot program starts next week, with 1,950 doses of the vaccine to be administered to health-care workers at Regina General Hospital. The doses will be given to staff providing direct care to COVID-19 patients.

Phase 1 of the province's vaccine delivery plan will focus on health-care workers, elderly residents in care homes, seniors over 80 and residents in northern remote communities.

Phase 1 is anticipated to start in late December, with 202,052 doses expected within the first quarter of 2021.

Cardiologist Andrea Lavoie (foreground) works with COVID-19 patients. Dr. Yang Zhan and Dr. Omar Sultan are in the background. (Andrea Lavoie)

Cardiologist Andrea Lavoie, who treats COVID-19 patients in Regina, may be one of the first health-care workers to get the vaccine.

"I am very anxious in terms of wanting to get it so I can do more for patients with COVID-19," she said.

Although she works with COVID-19 patients, she said there are others who should get the shot ahead of her.

"There are a number of health-care workers who work for longer periods of time in closer contact," Lavoie said.

Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout, which will see the general population begin to be vaccinated, is scheduled to begin in April 2021.

Getting everyone who wants the vaccine inoculated will take months and will be the most complex vaccine program the province has ever undertaken, health officials say.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will arrive in Saskatchewan next week. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Saskatchewan Union of Nurses president Tracy Zambory said the devil will be in the details.

"It is the light at the end of the tunnel, but we've got a long way to go before we can think that we've gotten over the hump here," Zambory said.

One hurdle is being able to vaccinate people in their own communities.

To do that, Zambory said the Saskatchewan Health Authority should reopen small rural clinics that were shut down this year but would normally be part of the flu vaccination program.

"Many of the small rural clinics were actually taken away. Many people had to actually leave their small towns and travel somewhere else [to get a flu shot]," Zambory said.

"We want to see those returned."

Even if more rural clinics open, places like the far north may have to wait for a different vaccine because of refrigeration requirements with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Sally Ratt hugs her mom Nancy. They both have contracted COVID-19. (Sally Ratt)

Sally Ratt lives 300 kilometres north of Prince Albert and is sick with COVID-19, as is her 10-year-old son and her mother Nancy.

Ratt said she is nervous about taking the vaccine when it becomes available to her.

"I'm not sure how I feel," Ratt said. "I'm a diabetic so I'm scared to get side effects."

British regulators warned Wednesday that people who have a history of serious allergic reactions shouldn't receive the new Pfizer vaccine, pending investigation of two adverse reactions that occurred on the first day of the country's mass vaccination program.

Asked about those warnings, Dr. Supriya Sharma, the chief medical adviser at Health Canada, sought to reassure Canadians that her department conducted a "rigorous" review of all the product's clinical trial and technical information.

She said scientists found "strong evidence" that the vaccine's potential benefits far outweigh any risks.

"We are always on the lookout for more serious adverse events," Sharma said. "It is still a vaccine and there are potential risks even if they are rare. That's why it's important that we still continue to monitor it."

Sharma said Health Canada is recommending individuals with allergies to any of the vaccine's components avoid the shot.

Sharma noted that there were few serious medical incidents reported among the 43,000 clinical trial participants. The most common side effects were soreness at the site of injection, joint pain and fatigue, she said.

Zambory said a few people having reactions to the vaccine is to be expected.

"That's no different than any other type of vaccination."

Zambory said she trusts the science and research behind the vaccine.

"We are strongly encouraging everyone, when it is your turn, to please take the vaccination."

She stressed that the vaccine is still just one tool in the toolbox.

People still need to wear masks, social distance and keep their bubbles small for the foreseeable future, she said.

"Vaccination programs normally take a long time to roll out and this one will be no different," said Zambory. "Even looking at the plan, we see that it goes well into the year 2021 to get through all the phases."

With files from Bonnie Allen and John Paul Tasker