Canada's 'slow' rollout of coronavirus vaccine 'embarrassing': experts

WATCH: : Experts call for quick roll-out as COVID-19 vaccines sit in freezers.

A majority of Canadians should be vaccinated against the coronavirus by September 2021, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But with the current pace of the country’s vaccination distribution, experts warn provinces may not be able to reach the target anytime soon.

“Canada is definitely having a slower start,” said Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto. “And each day and week goes by, we run the great risk of falling further and further behind.

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Canada has fallen behind countries like Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom in vaccine distribution.

According to recent numbers from Our World In Data, a University of Oxford-based organization, the total number of vaccination doses administered per 100 people for Canada was 0.3, as of Jan. 2. For the U.S., it was 1.28, in the U.K. it was 1.39 (as of Dec. 27). And for Israel, it was 12.59.

Israel, which has vaccinated a higher proportion of its population against the coronavirus than any other country, is delivering shots so quickly it’s running out of vaccines.

Canada’s geography is, of course, much larger than nations like the U.K. and Israel, meaning there are different logistical hurdles.

However, Bowman said geography still does not explain why the initial rollout has been so slow, as many administration sites are in large urban areas, such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

These vaccines are of no use to anybody if they’re not in someone’s arm. … Having them in the country and in a freezer is not great.”

A spokesperson for Health Minister Patty Hajdu told Global News it’s “crucial that provinces and territories distribute these vaccines as quickly as possible to protect Canadians.”

“As part of this, 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. Our plan will see millions of Canadians vaccinated in the first quarter of 2021, with all Canadians who want it vaccinated by September 2021,” the spokesperson said.

How many Canadians have been vaccinated?

Canada has so far approved two vaccines — by Pfizer-BioNTech (Dec. 9) and Moderna (Dec. 23). Both vaccines require two doses a number of weeks apart for full efficacy.

Provinces have differed in their approaches to the vaccine — some have held back supply to ensure a second dose is available when the time comes, while others planned to administer all doses as soon as they’re available.

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Health Canada is also currently reviewing clinical data from Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca, so more vaccines are in the pipeline.

As of Sunday, Canada had administered 119,202 coronavirus vaccines across the country, according to COVID-19 Tracker Canada.

That means 0.317 per cent of the population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

More than 420,000 doses of Moderna and Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccines have been delivered to the provinces for administration, according to the website. And as of Sunday, 28.4 per cent of the doses have been administered.

“It’s an utter failure when you have three-fourths of our vaccines still sitting inside of freezers,” said biostatistician Ryan Imgrund, who works with Ottawa Public Health.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, 42,419 people have been vaccinated since Dec. 14.

Imgrund called the number “embarrassingly” low.

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“We have been hoping for this vaccine for quite some time and it’s still sitting inside of freezers. We’re still only vaccinating four (to five) thousand people per day (in Ontario). It’s a shame,” he said. “At 5,000 people per day, it would take eight years to vaccinate all of Ontario at this rate.”

Ontario, with a population of 14.57 million, previously said it expects to vaccinate approximately 8.5 million people by the end of June. So far, 19 hospitals across Ontario are equipped with administering the immunizations.

Why the slow start?

Imgrund said at first he believed the slow start was due to the storage requirements for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine (which requires it to be stored at ultra-low temperatures of -70 C).

“But, now we now have the Moderna vaccine that can be easily rolled out, it can be stored in just basic freezers. We don’t need any specialty logistics for this to happen,” he said.

Bowman agreed.

He said the arrival of Moderna’s vaccine has helped speed up the rollout, but still, it’s not enough to meet the September target. And he said staffing and infrastructure are not to blame. It ultimately comes down to planning and leadership.

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For example, Ontario paused coronavirus vaccinations during the Christmas holidays, citing staff shortages. Yet after the announcement, many health professionals took to social media saying they would volunteer their time.

We just haven’t had great planning on this,” he said. “I know health care professionals that volunteered weeks and even more than a month to go to help with the vaccine rollout. And they haven’t even been contacted.”

“Existing infrastructure is not being used and you have people volunteering that haven’t been called. And so that’s very, very worrisome,” Bowman said.

Like Bowman, Imgrund blamed the slow rollout in Ontario on a lack of leadership.

“I think that’s really what it comes down to because if you had a plan to actually get people vaccinated, you would run out of vaccines before you know. Instead, it’s the complete opposite … and it’s frustrating because we knew that in phase one we’re going to be targeting the most vulnerable people.

Global News reached out to the Canadian and Ontario governments for a comment about the vaccination rate but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Bowman and Imgrund argued that provinces should be asking family physicians, pharmacists and even veterinarians, to help get the vaccines in people’s arms.

The use of doctor’s offices, pharmacies and even high school gyms should also be utilized, they said.

“We don’t have schools open here in Ontario right now. Why not turn a local high school has a vaccination facility? And then bus long term care facility residents there,” Imgrund said.

On Monday, Manitoba became the first province to set up a “supersite” for vaccines, utilizing its convention centre to help inoculate frontline workers and vulnerable people.

Bowman said provinces like Ontario should follow suit and open up larger areas (on an appointment basis) to help administer more vaccines.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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