Regina resident who thought she'd be given Pfizer vaccine shocked after being told she'd get AstraZeneca

Maxine Koskie says when she heard she wouldn't be getting the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as planned, she broke down and cried. The health ministry says all vaccines approved by Health Canada, including AstraZeneca, are safe and effective.

Ministry says vaccines approved by Health Canada are safe, effective at preventing serious forms of COVID-19

Maury and Maxine Koskie say they were caught off guard when they were told they would be receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, after the two made appointments at Evraz Place, where they believed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was being offered. (Submitted by Maxine Koskie )

Maxine Koskie says when she heard she wouldn't be getting the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as planned, she broke down and cried.

The Regina resident is waiting for surgery and required a vaccine for the procedure — one she's been waiting for since last October.

She made an appointment online for vaccinations for her and her husband at the Evraz Place immunization site in Regina, which, based on previous Saskatchewan Health Authority information, she believed was offering the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.

But just before she was set to receive the shot, the nurse informed Koskie she and her husband would be getting the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine instead.

"It was a complete surprise to both of us," she said.

"They're acting more like a dictatorship, because they're taking away the freedom of choice," she said. "I made the conscious choice to go for a Pfizer vaccine and that was not an option for me."

Koskie says she ended up receiving the shot out of necessity, but the experience left her feeling let down by the government.

In a statement sent to CBC, Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health said vaccine availability is dependent on numerous factors, including the increasing presence of coronavirus variants of concern in the Regina area. 

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization guidelines suggest the AstraZeneca vaccine should be used only for people older than 55. But the presence and transmission of variants of concern in Regina has required the province to "accelerate the vaccination program" for those under 55, the health ministry said.

"All vaccines approved by Health Canada are safe and effective at preventing the most serious forms of COVID-19 illness and death. All residents have been asked to take the vaccine that is available to them," the ministry said.

"If those receiving the vaccine have concerns regarding a certain brand of vaccine due to their medical history, they should speak to their primary care physician or a public health nurse directly prior to their appointment."

'It's been very underhanded'

Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman need to be transparent with the people of Saskatchewan, she says.

"My concern is that it's been very underhanded," she said, adding the experience left her feeling appalled. "I was so upset with the disrespect."

The Saskatchewan Health Authority announced "vaccine delivery changes" in an online notice on Friday.

"The SHA has re-allocated the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in the Regina mass immunization sites at the International Trade Centre and the University of Regina to allow for the administration of Pfizer vaccines through the drive-thru starting Friday, while vaccine supply is available," the health authority said online.

One of the province's first mass vaccination clinics at the International Trade Centre at Regina's Evraz Place. One Regina resident is fuming after only discovering at her appointment that she wasn't getting the brand of vaccine she expected. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

Koskie thinks patients should be notified directly about any changes to their appointment or vaccine plan before they arrive for their appointments.

She says she wasn't alone in her anger and frustration, as others around them also expressed concern when they were informed of the change.

"They need to be honest and when they change things on the spur of the moment, they need to get that information out to the public that it is going to affect."

Efficacy concerns

She said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was her shot of choice because she feels it provides better protection.

AstraZeneca has said its vaccine had a 76 per cent efficacy rate at preventing symptomatic illness — compared with rates of about 95 per cent for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and about 67 per cent for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which was the fourth and latest approved by Health Canada

As well, data from one small trial suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine did not protect against mild to moderate illness from the B1351 variant of the coronavirus, which was first identified in South Africa.

However, Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada's chief medical adviser, told CBC in a February interview that "Where it matters the most, against severe disease, hospitalization and death … [AstraZeneca] seems to be quite effective against the variant."

Sharma also said laboratory tests and real-world evidence suggest the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine seems to be "quite effective" against the B117 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom.

The clinical trials of both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech were completed before the variants of concern took off worldwide.

Patients can refuse vaccine: ministry

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health says patients are informed about the brand of vaccine they will receive, noting they are free to refuse the vaccine if they have concerns.

However, Koskie says she thinks the government is "not accepting responsibility or ownership" for the fact people may be caught off guard when they're told they'll be receiving a different vaccine once they're at an appointment.

"They're in a position where they have no choice," she said.

She's already made a call to the ministry on the issue, and now plans to file a formal written complaint. 

'Any vaccine is a good vaccine': health minister 

Health Minister Paul Merriman addressed questions about vaccines on Saturday, following a rare weekend sitting of the legislature.

He said a "very minimal" number of people out of the thousands who have booked appointments at Evraz Place have refused a vaccine because they didn't want to take a specific brand.

"Any vaccine is a good vaccine, unless there are very certain circumstances where a doctor or a health-care provider has recommended you don't do that," he said, noting people can rebook later if they're concerned about the type of vaccine offered to them. 

He says the province is not in a position to "pick and choose" when it comes to vaccines, and pointed out Saskatchewan Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab has already received the AstraZeneca shot. 

Merriman said the province will work to accommodate people who are unable to get a certain vaccine due to medical conditions outlined by a doctor, encouraging them to call into the province's vaccine line at 1-833-727-5829 beforehand. 

But he said there are no plans moving forward for the government to inform members of the public about which vaccines will become available to them, as supply fluctuates. 

"There will be, to my knowledge, no advance warning of what you are getting," he said. "People assume that they're getting one vaccine or not, but any vaccine is a good vaccine right now."