Alberta plans to administer first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to 29,000 health-care workers by the end of December, the province’s health minister says.
The province will receive 3,900 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine in the next 24 to 48 hours and expects to get another 25,350 doses at the start of next week, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday at a news conference.
“I said last week that there was a first glimmer of good news with the expected arrival of the first small shipment of vaccines this week,” Shandro said. “Today, I am here to confirm that the news is a lot bigger and it’s a lot better.”
The province will begin immunizing ICU doctors and nurses, respiratory therapists and eligible continuing-care staff in Edmonton and in Calgary on Wednesday, he said. The cities were chosen because that’s where case numbers are highest and where the health system faces the greatest capacity challenges.
“We are going to give the system some real help in dealing with those challenges,” Shandro said.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two doses to be effective, Shandro said, but since more will soon be on the way all 29,000 doses can be used as first doses.
“We don’t have to hold back any of that portion for the second dose,” he said. “We are going to give the first dose of vaccine to 29,000 health-care professionals by the end of December.
“Making this announcement is the greatest privilege that I’ve had as health minister, because it’s the first real ray of light in the dark night that our health-care professionals have lived through for 10 months now,” Shandro said.
“I haven’t walked in their shoes but I’ve admired them my whole life, and never more than this past year. And I’m grateful and proud now to show them that we’re here for them.”
Alberta reported a record 1,887 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and another 15 deaths, for at total of 734. Across the province, 716 people are being treated in hospitals for the illness, including 136 in ICU beds, both record-setting numbers.
The R-value, or reproduction number, over the past seven days averaged 0.98.
An R-value of 1 means an infected person has infected, on average, one other person. If the value is above 1, the spread will continue to grow.
“What last week’s value seems to indicate is that cases plateaued over the week,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
“A single week’s R-value does not tell us about a trend. R is also not useful when looked at alone. We also need to look at our new daily case numbers which remain high.”
The province needs to see several weeks of an R-value well below 1 and a decrease in new case numbers, she said.
The ultra-cold freezers needed to store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have been installed at eight locations across Alberta, the province said in a news release.
Pending final approval from Health Canada, the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is also expected to arrive in Alberta in December, Shandro said. Since that vaccine does not require super-cold storage, the initial shipment will be used to immunize residents at long-term care locations, beginning with those at highest risk.
Paul Wynnyk, chair of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, said since the vaccines are new, staff have be training in how to handle and the administer them.
“Alberta Health Services has all the other supplies needed to administer these vaccine doses for several months, so we are all well-positioned to ensure vaccinations goes smoothly,” he said. “We are truly, truly well prepared.
“Our work is far from over, but I am confident in our efforts thus far, and I truly look forward to the weeks ahead as we start to take the steps that will end this pandemic.
“As I’ve said before, I do not look at these vaccines as objects to deliver or merely a simple task. These vaccines represent the start of our return to normalcy, and the protection of our most vulnerable.”
Shandro said the province hopes to have the first doses available for long-term care residents by the end of the month.
Because the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, the first doses will be given at the two initial shipment locations in Edmonton and Calgary.
The first acute-care staff to get the vaccines will be at the Foothills Hospital and the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary, and from University of Alberta and Royal Alexandra hospitals in Edmonton. Alberta Health Services will book appointments for those staff to receive their second dose when they receive their first.
General population months away from immunization
With eight dedicated vaccine sites Alberta will be able to expand the early phase to more health-care professionals across the province, Shandro said.
“Now, no vaccine is 100-per-cent effective, but vaccination means that doctors, nurses and others can go to work with less fear of getting sick themselves, or bringing COVID home to their families, or exposing their patients without knowing it.
“And it will help the health-care system meet the extraordinary challenge of adding new spaces to care for the very sick patients who are still coming into hospitals, in larger numbers every day.”
Because worldwide demand for the vaccine is high, Alberta will receive a limited number doses over the next few months, Hinshaw said.
“It will be some time before we are able to immunize the general population. We are still many months away from seeing widespread protection against COVID-19, which means the steps we are taking now to slow the spread and bend the curve are still critical.”
The province will get the vaccines out as quickly as possible, Shandro said, but the process will take months.
“If people look at the daily numbers or the news on vaccines and decide the crisis is passing, then we will cause a whole new crisis. We have to get cases, and we have to get admissions, down. We have to stay the course. We have to follow the restrictions that are in place and we have to protect ourselves and each other.”