'Today is one of the most positive days we've had,' says SHA CEO as vaccine rollout plan announced
First doses to go to health workers in Dec., general public vaccination to begin April 2021
The Saskatchewan government says Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine doses for about 1,950 people are expected to arrive by Dec. 15.
A pilot program will see the vaccine, which was approved by Health Canada Wednesday morning, administered at Regina General Hospital to health-care workers.
The vaccine doses will be given to staff providing direct care to COVID-19 patients.
"Today is one of the most positive days we've had in our journey with the COVID pandemic," said Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) CEO Scott Livingstone.
At the same time, he said everyone must double down on adhering to all the public health orders to flatten the curve of the virus over the coming months.
The first recipients of the vaccine will be workers in ICUs, emergency departments and COVID units at Regina General and Pasqua hospitals, along with staff at testing and assessment centres, said a provincial news release Tuesday.
Pilot recipients will receive their second dose 21 days after the first.
Phase 1 of the province's vaccine delivery plan will focus on priority populations at a higher risk of exposure to the virus or more at risk of serious illness: health care workers, elderly residents in care homes, seniors over 80 and residents in northern remote communities.
Phase 1 is anticipated start in late December, with 202,052 doses expected within the first quarter of 2021.
That number includes expected weekly allocations of 10,725 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Weekly allocations of the Moderna vaccine are still being finalized. Allocations are subject to fluctuations and this may affect plans.
Phase 2 of the vaccine delivery plan is slated to begin in April 2021. It will continue priority population immunization while also beginning widespread vaccine access to the general population.
Dr. Saqib Shahab,the province's chief medical health officer, said it will take time to see the vaccine's impact.
Shahab said it takes three weeks to get both doses of the vaccine and then another week for it to become effective.
"So hopefully by February, March, April we will see the benefits of vaccine protecting to some extent the most vulnerable," Shahab said.
"Then by April, May, June we'll see more people at risk getting vaccinated and then later in the summer and into the fall all of us will be able to get vaccinated."
Distribution in Phase 2 will occur at public health clinics and other vaccination delivery sites across the province.
This will be the "most comprehensive" vaccine program in the province's history, said Dr. Tanya Diener, the SHA's medical health officer in Regina.
Logistics and cold storage
Diener said the pilot program will help work out logistics for the greater rollout of the vaccine.
The program is part of a national initiative, she said.
"There are approximately 14 sites identified across the country where this pilot (program) will occur next week," Diener said. "We basically already started yesterday by receiving shipments with a box of dry ice so that the logistics on that part could be figured out."
Premier Scott Moe said the province has ultracold storage in place to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which needs to be stored at -60 C to –80 C.
"We are doing some work now to establish the logistics around how we distribute that safely across the province," said Livingstone, adding the province will receive an allotment from the Public Health Agency of Canada of seven regular freezers and one low temperature freezer to store the vaccine.
"The Ministry of Health has also procured and is awaiting delivery of 25 portable ultralow temperature freezers to assist with vaccine shipments across the province."
Livingstone said there are already ultralow freezers in the province at universities and laboratories that could be used if needed.
Vaccinations will happen 'as quickly as physically possible'
Moe said he expects the Moderna vaccine to be approved soon and the province could receive doses in early 2021.
Once the vaccine is available it is the public's job to get the vaccine, Moe said.
"We all need to do this. Just like we all need to follow the public health orders and guidelines that are in place to keep ourselves, and to keep others safe."
Health officials announced 302 more cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan on Wednesday.
The premier said his Saskatchewan Party government will start vaccinations "as quickly as physically possible."
Moe said vaccinations will happen in phases determined by health officials, as more doses will become available in the new year.
Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili expressed concern that Moe's focus on vaccine distribution is an attempt to "change the channel" from his government's present challenge of trying to contain the spread of the virus.
The government says getting a COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory, but a communications plan will be part of the distribution.
More, or less restrictions
Dr Shahab said they will make a decision next week about whether to ease or expand restrictions that were put in place a couple of weeks ago.
"On a positive note we are not having 500 cases a day, we are stuck between 250-300, which really speaks to the efforts all people in Saskatchewan are doing to minimize transmission," he said.
"There is some hope for optimism that we may be plateauing but some concern that hospitalizations and ICU admissions are trending up."
He said it is hard to stay apart over the holidays as it is traditionally a time of being with family
"But I think with our current case numbers we need to stay apart and remain connected by other means."
With files from Canadian Press