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Pharmacies ready to help administer COVID-19 vaccines across Canada, association says

Local pharmacies are ready to help out with a national COVID-19 vaccine rollout once supply becomes available, says the head of an organization that represents the retailers.

95% of Canadians live within 5 km of a pharmacy, says Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada

Lawrence Fagan inquires about a flu shot at a Shoppers Drug Mart, in Toronto, on Oct. 7, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Local pharmacies are ready to help out with a national COVID-19 vaccine rollout once supply becomes available, says the head of an organization that represents the retailers.

Sandra Hanna, CEO of the Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada and a practising pharmacist, said pharmacies hope to play a "critical" role in a mass immunization campaign against COVID-19.

Vaccination is not new to pharmacies and the process of getting a vaccine at a local pharmacy is not new to Canadians, she said.

"We know that pharmacies are already playing a huge role in immunizations programs in general," Hanna told CBC News Network in an interview from Toronto on Saturday.

"About half of Canadians already get their flu shots at their community pharmacy. We think pharmacies are going to be integral to ensuring that Canadians get vaccinated against COVID-19."

Hanna said it makes sense for local pharmacies to administer COVID-19 vaccines because they already administer flu shots, there are 11,000 pharmacies across the country, 90 per cent of them are routinely administering vaccines, and 95 per cent of Canadians live within a five kilometre radius of a pharmacy. 

Sandra Hanna, CEO of the Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada and a practising pharmacist, said pharmacies hope to play a 'critical' role in a mass immunization campaign against COVID-19. (Neighbourhood Pharmacy Association of Canada)

"This presents a really great opportunity to make the vaccine available, accessible and easy to access for Canadians once we have the supply," she said.

"I think this is an all hands on deck approach. We have a number of great and eager health care providers across the country who want to play an important role in helping to get Canada out of this pandemic."

Pharmacies recommend vaccination by appointment

The rollout for the COVID-19 vaccine will be different than it has been for flu vaccines because it is being administered to priority groups first, Hannah added. Details of the mass immunization campaign are still being worked out and they will vary by province, she said.

"What that means is not every Canadian is eligible to get the vaccine at the same time and that we're prioritizing those highest risk first and then kind of going down the chain to ensure that all Canadians have access to the vaccine," she said.

Hanna said the association is seeing most provinces recommending an appointment-based model, an approach that is familiar to most Canadians. 

Under that model, Canadians can expect they would be screened at the time of their appointment, go into a consultation room, get the shot, then stay around for about 15 minutes in case of an adverse reaction.

Lawrence Fagan, of Toronto, waits for a flu shot at a Shoppers Drug Mart on Oct. 7, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"I think the most important thing is just going to be clear communication of those priority groups," she said.

"What we want to make sure is that it's clearly communicated to Canadians when they are eligible to receive the vaccine and that all providers have the same communication so that we can ensure when you are eligible to get your vaccine, you can get it and there's no confusion around whether or not you can access the vaccine," she added.

"I think clear and consistent communication will be really critical to ensure that we can do this in a smooth fashion."

Pharmacies included next phase of rollout, province says

In an email on Saturday, the Ontario health ministry said supply is currently the central issue with its vaccine rollout, but pharmacies will be included as vaccination sites in the next phase of its plan.

Under the current phase, which began in December, limited doses of the vaccine are being given to health-care workers in hospitals, residents of long-term care homes and retirement homes and people who live in remote Indigenous communities, the province said.

"The biggest challenge [in] Ontario's vaccine rollout remains the significant reduction in supply from the federal government and the uncertainty of future shipments. Ontario will have baseline capacity to vaccinate nearly 40,000 people a day in the coming weeks, and we have the ability to triple or quadruple this capacity with notice," ministry spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene said in the email.

"We continue to be ready to administer doses — and expand the locations administering doses — as soon as we receive vaccines from the federal government."

Pharmacist John Papastergiou prepares flu vaccinations at a Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto on Oct. 7, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

As the province begins to prepare for the next phase, which could begin as early as March, it will add more vaccination sites, she said.

"Over the coming months, those sites will include municipally run vaccination sites, hospital sites, mobile vaccination sites, pharmacies, clinics, primary care settings and community locations such as community health centres and aboriginal health access centres," Hilkene said. 

When the vaccine supply increases, the government will allow more health care providers to administer the vaccine and these providers include nurse practitioners, registered nurses and registered practical nurses as well as pharmacists, pharmacy students, interns and pharmacy technicians.

A total of 467,626 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Ontario, as of 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, according to provincial data. A total of 174,643 people are fully vaccinated in the province.

With files from John Northcott

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