Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

'No points gained for rationing out the vaccine,' says Dr. Jane Philpott

With COVID-19 vaccines at the forefront of the news, Dr. Jane Philpott, Canada's former federal health minister, says the country should adopt a one-million-per-week vaccine plan.

Former federal health minister encourages Canada to adopt a one-million-per-week vaccination plan

Former federal health minister Dr. Jane Philpott says the faster Canada can get the vaccine out of freezers and into people's arms, the faster mortality rates will drop. (Turget Yeter/CBC )

As the United Kingdom continues to battle rising COVID-19 case numbers, health officials in the country hope to soon vaccinate up to two million people per week.

The news comes not long after the U.K. became the first country to give emergency authorization to a COVID vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which could open the door for a cheap and easy-to-store vaccine. 

Former federal health minister Dr. Jane Philpott is a fan of the U.K.'s ambitions and says Canada should follow suit.

The current Dean of Queen's University's Faculty of Health Sciences spoke to Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing about Canada's vaccine rollout and why the country should be doing more to get doses into people's arms.

Here is part of their conversation.

A few days ago you tweeted that Canada should be able to match the one-million-per-week vaccination plan in Great Britain, which I find particularly interesting given the fact that you know from the inside some of the challenges that governments have. 

How realistic of a target is that for Canada?

From Canada's point of view, it's a simple math equation. We've got 37 million people in the country and if we did a million [doses] a week, we'll get it done by September. 

It gives us something to work toward. We're obviously nowhere near that at this point, but this is the stage where we have tremendous need to scale up as quickly as possible, because the pandemic is at record numbers, because there is a variant of great concern that's now circulating in the Canadian population. 

The faster we can get the vaccine out of freezers and into people's arms, the faster we can drop those mortality rates.

I want to read a statement that we received from the office of the current health minister, Patty Hajdu. It reads in part, "We have secured the highest numbers of doses per capita of any country in the world, and the most diverse portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines are planned. We'll see millions of Canadians vaccinated by the first quarter of 2021, [and] all Canadians who want it can be vaccinated by September of 2021." 

Is that good enough?

I think the federal government has done an admirable job on their procurement approach, and it's wonderful to see that some of the vaccines have actually arrived even faster than we were expecting them to. 

This is actually not a matter of who's done a good job or who's done a bad job. This is a matter of all of us working together so that as soon as those vaccines that have been procured and get into the country, we get them into people's arms within days, not within weeks.

There's no point gained for doing this in a slow and steady fashion. There are no points gained for pacing ourselves or rationing out the vaccine.- Dr. Jane Philpott

This is a call for us to all work together and have a high degree of collaboration and a high degree of ambition to be able to get the job done. Stop pointing fingers or shifting blame, but let's figure out how we can actually get those vaccines into people, particularly older people living in long-term care facilities and other institutions.

You tweeted out a graph entitled 'Canada vaccine gap tracker.' Tell us what the numbers there are instructing us.

You can't always go by the data that's available publicly, but it looks like close to half a million vaccine doses have been distributed in the country, well over 400,000 as far as we know. 

But in terms of the numbers that are administered, it looks like it's only about 110,000. So we're looking at 25 to 30 per cent of the vaccines in most provinces that have actually gone from freezers to arms.

There's no point gained for doing this in a slow and steady fashion. There are no points gained for pacing ourselves or rationing out the vaccine. I'd be happy to see empty freezers if it means that every dose that gets into this country gets delivered within a week and then we're ready to go when the next dose arrives. 

I have a note here that a federal Liberal MP, Kamal Khera, has stepped aside as parliamentary secretary to the minister of international development after going to Seattle last month for a private memorial for two relatives.

How do you feel about the international travel by so many politicians, and now the backlash for that? 

It's been a really disappointing part of the story over the last number of days because whether you're in a leadership position or not, society depends on us. This is a case where everybody has to work together to follow the rules so that we can try to end the misery that we've been undergoing for such a long time.

The more that we can get off of that situation, then we can focus all of our attention entirely on getting the work done to get the public health directives very clearly articulated. Then let's get this vaccine delivered as quickly as we possibly can.

Philpott says discussion about the vaccine rollout shouldn't focus who's done a good or bad job, but rather, the country working together to get vaccines into people's arms in days, not weeks. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Monday after New Year's is, for a lot of people, the unofficial real start to the new year. When it comes to vaccine rollout and this issue that you have been very passionate and very public about, what would you like to see starting tomorrow?

I would be thrilled to hear premiers, the prime minister and health ministers across the country talking in a very ambitious way about what we can do together. 

I have a particular interest in addressing the issue around older people, and I think here in Ontario, for example, I would love to see an ambitious announcement that we will actually get the job done in terms of vaccinating every resident in a long-term care facility or retirement home by the end of January.

It's absolutely doable. We have the doses that we need and we have the enthusiastic people ready to deliver the doses. So that would make me very happy.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Kirthana Sasitharan and Steven Howard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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