This week Canadians finally had something to cheer about after Health Canada approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Nine months in and the virus has infected close to half a million Canadians, with the recent second wave breaking records for new daily case rates all over the country. Clearly the good news could not have come at a better time, but there are a lot of questions: How long will the roll out take? How do we know the vaccine is safe and who gets the first doses?
The vaccine is here, but how long will I have to wait to get one?
Can we stop for a sec and rewind to that first part? THE VACCINE IS HERE!!!! For months (and months!) we’ve been waiting and worrying and neglecting to wear pants, all at the mercy of this horrible, unprecedented global pandemic that turned real life into an extinction blockbuster. And now, here we are talking about not if, but when we’ll be free! It’s the holiday bonus that everyone deserves, but how and when will it be distributed?
On Wednesday the federal government released “Canada’s Immunization Plan,” which is to “enable as many Canadians as possible to be immunized as quickly as possible against COVID-19, while ensuring that high-risk populations are prioritized.”
That’s great but pretty vague.
OK, fair, but we do have some specifics: By the end of 2021, Canada is set up to get as many as 76 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, plus an additional 414 million doses from other vaccine manufacturers (more on those in a sec). According to the prime minister, the first 249,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will come by the end of the month, with the first batch scheduled to be delivered — and maybe even administered — by Monday. (Woot!)
Do we know who gets vaccinated first?
This is a bit complicated based on the fact that unlike the procurement of the vaccine (a federal responsibility), the roll out is the mandate of each individual province and territory. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended that first doses go to residents and staff of long-term care homes; adults 70 years or older (starting with those 80 and over); front-line health-care workers; and adults in Indigenous communities. So far all of the premiers and leaders are on board with these guidelines (here is a province-by-province vaccination plan breakdown), but there are complications. For example, the Pfizer vaccine must be stored in ultra-low temperature freezers, which don’t exist at long-term care facilities. Speaking to media earlier this week, Dr. Theresa Tam said the first doses will go to people who can travel to one of 14 delivery sites across the country.
That’s great and all. But as a 24-year-old with no health conditions, it doesn’t help me.
Don’t look now, Ebenezer, but actually, it does! There are two reasons that vulnerable populations get the vaccine first: 1. Because they are the ones most likely to get seriously ill and/or die, 2. Because they contribute disproportionately to a strain on health care. “As soon as we have fewer issues around hospital capacity we can focus on curbing our local pandemic,” says Yammine. On an even more basic level, fewer sick people = less spread = less chance of contracting COVID on your next grocery run.
OK, my bad. But seriously, when is my vaccine coming?
At this point, the plan is to focus on high-priority groups between January and March, with vaccinations of the general population set to start around April. By July, the government expects to have about half of the country vaccinated and by December, everyone who wants a vaccine should be able to get one. B.C. recently announced a plan to work from oldest to youngest in five year increments. Nothing’s for sure yet, but smart money says 20-somethings are likely looking at late fall 2021, dependent on delivery schedules and the approval and regulation of other vaccines.
Can we talk about the other vaccines now?
Is one vaccine better? Safer? Less likely to make me spring a set of gills or a second head?
While a certain amount of trepidation is perfectly understandable, rest assured that any vaccine that passes through Health Canada’s seriously anal protocols is not going to result in any of the above scenarios. “The thing about scientists and health care professionals is that we don’t like to take risks, we tend to be overly cautious,” says Yammine. As for which vaccine is the best, it doesn’t really work that way. There are differences (most significantly, the Pfizer has the crazy cold-storage requirement and is administered in two doses, while the other three are single dose, standard storage), but basically they all work by imitating a less threatening version of the COVID-19 virus so that your body can be ready for the real thing.
Will I get to choose which vaccine I get?
Short answer: Probably not. “In all likelihood, who gets which vaccine will come down to logistics, based largely on where and when your number gets called,” says Yammine. For example, people in remote parts of the country may not be great candidates for the Pfizer option, which requires the high-tech freezer. The other possibility is that one manufacturer may do advanced testing on certain sub-populations (young people, pregnant women, people who are immunocompromised), which could affect recommendations for people in those groups.
If the Pfizer vaccine is so safe, why do we need so many different vaccines?
Because not so long ago, we had no idea who was going to reach the finish line first. Think of it as covering all of our COVID bases or not wanting to put all of our immune systems in one basket.
What about the adverse and allergic reactions I keep hearing about?
Allergic reactions have been a hot topic after two health care workers in the U.K. “responded adversely” earlier this week. We don’t know what that means exactly. We do know that both individuals have a history of serious allergies. At this point, Canadian authorities are monitoring the situation, but have so far not updated the guidelines around allergies, which currently state that people with allergies to the ingredients in the vaccine should not get it, but everyone else is a go. As for the other side effects, it’s true there have been reports of pain at the injection site, fever, chills, muscle aches. “These are all extremely predictable and nothing to worry about,” says Yammine. “If you’re going to focus on adverse events from a vaccine, you also want to look at the adverse events of the things you’re being protected from. In terms of COVID those can be extremely dangerous and potentially long-lasting.”
So the COVID vaccine won’t edit my DNA then?
No! “This is one of those rumours that has been flying around the internet, and it is 100% false,” says Yammine, noting that if you see any of these outlandish claims circulating on social media, you should report them. “Fighting against the disease is hard enough, but the reality is we have another huge fight against misinformation.”
Do I have to get vaccinated?
At this point the government is providing vaccines “for anyone who wants one,” but that doesn’t mean anti-vaxxers won’t face restrictions. You may not be able to travel, visit a loved one in a nursing home, or spend time in communal spaces like movie theatres. Legally speaking, there are interesting issues around whether or not an employer can require vaccination (at this point the jury is out), but practically speaking… “Get the vaccine,” says Yammine, not because you have to, but because it is the best way to protect yourself, your community and the whole world against the global health event of our lifetime. “You don’t have to, but you really, really should.”