Canadian pharmacies are helping administer COVID-19 vaccines across the country, saying the demand for inoculation is massive. So big in fact, that many pharmacies are standing by waiting for the next shipment of vaccines from provinces.
As vaccine rollout expands to include a wider variety of age groups, pharmacists say they can play a key role in getting jabs into arms.
However, depending on where that pharmacy is, some may only get access to one type of vaccine versus three.
For example, Ontario and British Columbia only supply their eligible pharmacies with AstraZeneca, which can only be used for patients 55 years old and up due to Health Canada regulations.
Alberta and Nova Scotia supply eligible pharmacies with Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
So why do some jurisdictions only allow AstraZeneca vaccines in pharmacies?
Ontario’s vaccine rule in pharmacies
In Ontario, adults aged 55 years of age and older can make appointments either through a pharmacy or a primary caregiver to get a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Global News reached out several times to Ontario Health for a comment on why the province only allows AstraZeneca in its pharmacies but did not hear back at the time of publication.
Toronto pharmacist, Kyro Maseh said the demand for vaccines has been astronomical, and he’s hoping the province will soon allow pharmacies access to Pfizer and Moderna too.
He said during Ontario’s phase one vaccine rollout, the province gave each eligible pharmacy 500 doses of the AstraZeneca shot that was expiring April 2.
“I had 500 doses when I started vaccinating, and I didn’t have the capacity and volunteers that I do now, yet I still managed to vaccinate over 500 doses in roughly 10 days,” he said.
Maseh feels the province isn’t allowing him and other pharmacies access to Pfizer or Moderna because officials are “worried about vaccines expiring” and going to waste.
“I will deplete whatever stock you give me within days,” he said confidently. “Within a week if you gave me a thousand [vaccines] I could assemble a team and I could get out a thousand doses. And I think I’m not the only pharmacist that could do this.”
Maseh acknowledged that Pfizer’s vaccine logistics are different than Moderna and AstraZeneca. But he argued pharmacies are still able to handle the logistical challenges (such as short shelf life and cold chain requirements) and get the vaccines in people’s arms within a week.
“AstraZeneca is not enough. With AstraZeneca, we’re only able to vaccinate 55 plus. But we have a lot of younger people that are getting sick as they are frontline workers or essential workers,” Maseh said.
He isn’t the only one hoping Ontario will allow pharmacists access to Pfizer and Moderna.
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Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA) said he’s currently lobbying the government to provide them with access to more vaccine types in order to help meet demand.
Because of the recent roll-back in age limits for the AstraZeneca shot, Bates said it’s unfortunately created some vaccine hesitancy among people.
And although he believes AstraZeneca is an effective vaccine against coronavirus, he is hoping pharmacists will soon be able to help inoculate the Ontario population with Pfizer and Moderna as well.
“There are two other provinces that currently allow for a mix of vaccines into pharmacy, including Pfizer, and that’s Alberta and Nova Scotia,” he said. “As the age for vaccines expands, we’re kind of left out beyond AstraZeneca because it’s 55 and over. So we think it’s important to offer more access by adding more supply.”
The number of pharmacies allowed to vaccinate people depends on the supply, Bates said. Currently, around 1,400 pharmacies across the province can do this.
But access to more vaccines means more pharmacies will be able to participate and help put a dent in the number of people vaccinated in the province.
He’s hoping the number will soon grow to 3,200 pharmacies.
“If we were onboarded with 3,200 pharmacies and we give about an average of 40 shots per day, it would be about a million per week,” he said.
How it works in Alberta
Every pharmacy in Alberta has been offered the chance to participate in the province’s vaccine rollout, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan told Global News in an email.
And almost 200,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered through pharmacies to date, he added.
“Initially, due to limited vaccine quantities and strict storage, handling and distribution requirements for the mRNAs vaccines, only a limited number of pharmacies were able to offer the vaccine,” McMillan explained.
“As more doses have arrived, we have expanded this program. We are currently administering Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines through various pharmacies provincewide.”
McMillan said community pharmacies have played such an important role in season flu programs, they have the skills, experience and infrastructure in place to be “an important part of our COVID-19 immunization programs.”
Also, he said, each participating pharmacy has to adhere to “strict” protocols needed for vaccine rollout.
For example, pharmacies with Pfizer vaccines are able to immunize people who are part of Phase 2B (people aged 16-64 with high-risk health conditions). But if you are in your mid-20s and don’t have a health risk condition, a pharmacist would not be able to vaccinate you.
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Alberta Health also said all pharmacies are given explicit guidance on booking and utilizing a waitlist to ensure doses aren’t wasted.
“Pharmacies can include a variety of individuals on the waiting list, but are required to align it with Alberta’s immunization approach,” McMillan said. He said the waiting list must prioritize giving expiring vaccines first to people who are already eligible in the current or previous phases.
‘We’ve had no issues’
Mona Sabharwal, senior vice president of pharmacy services at Rexall, said the rollout of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in Alberta pharmacies has gone very well.
“I would say it took about a week to really understand how to work well with these vaccines,” she said. “We didn’t maybe inject as many patients as we would with AstraZeneca, simply because we were taking our time to do it right. But now our pharmacists are very confident working with the vaccines, both Madrona and Pfizer. And we’ve had no issues.”
Sabharwal and Bates agreed that because pharmacists have had a long history of vaccinating a large amount of the population with flu shots, they are ready for this challenge as well.
Both said that pharmacists are trained professionals with a sophisticated distribution network.
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“We manage very expensive oncology products and other biologics. So this is very much germane to what we do and we have the infrastructure and technology to do it. I think initially there may have been some hesitation [with the Ontario government] ) because of those reasons,” Bates said.
Sabharwal said if Alberta pharmacists have been able to do it, she believes “Ontario pharmacists could do the same.”
Like Ontario, there continues to be a high demand for COVID-19 vaccines in Alberta, Sabharwal said, adding that because pharmacies have been able to use Moderna and Pfizer, they have been able to inoculate a wider range of people.
“The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine affords some flexibility in their age range. We’ve seen high demand actually with AstraZeneca as well. But because of the more narrow age range, that’s limit the number of people,” she said.
She added that not only do pharmacies help put a dent in Canada’s vaccine efforts, but people also rely on their proximity. Sometimes the neighborhood pharmacy is more accessible for people, rather than a massive vaccine clinic that’s too difficult to get to, she argued.
“The key goal is let’s get as many Canadians vaccinated as quickly as possible. And if that means having multiple vaccines within the pharmacy channel, then so be it,” Sabharwal said.
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