The vaccine should be coming to Niagara soon, but Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the region’s acting medical officer of health, is frustrated with the lack of information he’s received regarding its arrival.
“I don’t have any kind of dates or timeline for vaccines,” he says, “but I’m hopeful it won’t be too long.” It’s now being distributed to many parts of the Greater Toronto Area and into Hamilton, “and hopefully it will be coming here next.”
In terms of how the vaccine will be rolled out across the region, Hirji had little information earlier this week.
“We know the Pfizer vaccine will go to hospital sites, and the expectation is it will go to one of the Niagara Health sites. Niagara Health bought additional freezers last month, and has the capacity to store very large amounts of the Pfizer vaccine, should large amounts start to come here at any point.”
He’s not expecting those large amounts any time soon.
“I’m pretty realistic around the fact that the vaccines have just been approved. It’s been less than a month, and there hasn’t been a lot of time to manufacture the vaccine. The entire world is trying to get a hold of it, so I expect there will not be a lot of it coming.”
As distribution of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine began in Ontario, it was delivered to a number of hospitals in the GTA, where it could be kept at the extreme cold temperature required. Vaccinations of health care workers were occurring on-site. The Moderna vaccine doesn’t require the same storage temperatures, and when it arrives, is expected to be administered first to residents of long-term care.
“We haven’t heard much about the plans around the Moderna vaccine, but hopefully there will be an announcement of that coming soon,” says Hirji.
The region has “sample plans” for distribution, and has had since the start of the pandemic, knowing a vaccine would come eventually, he says.
The plan includes getting the vaccine first to long-term care residents and staff.
But even more frustrating than the scarcity of information about a timeline for Hirji is the lack of involvement in discussions about the vaccine roll-out between the provincial task group and regional Public Health, with no idea if those discussions will occur.
“There is no way to know at this point if Public Health will have a role in the vaccine campaign,” says Hirji.
“The Province has its task group in charge of vaccinations, and doesn’t have anybody with a public health background on it.” He doesn’t know if Niagara Region Public Health will be given any responsibility for administering doses locally. “We just need to be given the vaccine so we can start to use our plan.”
Niagara Health has put together a committee, has started planning for the Pfizer vaccine, and has involved Public Health in those discussions, he says.
He sees the lack of involvement with Public Health departments across the province as one reason the distribution and administration of the vaccine are lagging far behind what was expected.
“There has been a lot of talk about how slow rolling out the vaccines has been in the parts of the province that do have it. They’re trying to run a vaccination program, and not using the existing infrastructure we have for a vaccine, which is of course through Public Health. That is really frustrating.”
The areas of the province that have the vaccine “could be getting it out much more quickly, getting it to long-term care homes where people are sadly dying, and it’s all slowed down because the Province, instead of using existing infrastructures channels, has decided to reinvent the wheel and do something completely different.
That’s where I feel the frustration. It doesn’t make sense why the Province hasn’t even spoken to us.”
The Province “really hasn’t engaged with Public Health at all through this pandemic, going back to mid-January when we were first learning about it and wanted to know how to detect it in Niagara. Hospitals were initially to report COVID cases to the Province, “rather than giving the role to us so we could see if it was in hospitals or the communities. Eventually we started doing that. But at many different stages, they haven’t involved us as much as I think they could have.”