Canada's vaccine rollout stalls, confining seniors to their homes for months to come

Back in December 2020, Canada's coronavirus vaccination campaign looked promising as first doses were administered. But two months later supplies are down to a trickle and some of the country's elderly population is concerned. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports on what's gone wrong.

Posted: Feb 16, 2021 6:21 AM
Updated: Feb 16, 2021 6:21 AM

Like most Canadian seniors, David and Carol Green have been patient and even good humored about the pandemic waves that have kept them house-bound for nearly a year.

But their patience, if not their sense of humor, is running thin. They say they still have no idea when they will get that all important "shot in the arm" and a shot at a normal life again.

"On the one hand you try to be reasonable, and then on the other you're screaming your head off saying...you know, 'what's wrong here, why are we not doing something else,' ya know?" said Carol as her husband David nodded in agreement from their home in Stouffville, Ontario, just outside of Toronto.

The Canadian government thought it could pay to play in the global race to vaccinate its way back to normal life. But as its vaccine supply slowed to a trickle in February, Canada remains on the sidelines of that race despite buying more vaccines doses per capita than, likely, any other country on Earth.

Canada did seemingly get an early start on buying vaccines in April last year, although the government says it could not convince any companies to produce them on Canadian soil. And ultimately it was the timeline -- the fact that manufacturers did not prioritize Canada for doses this winter -- that has sealed the fate of millions of Canadians still waiting to get a vaccine.

"We just haven't heard anything about about what the near future holds for us other than the fact that we might see some supply coming into the country in April, and that's a very frustrating thing for me," David told CNN.

To date, Canadian officials say they have administered nearly 1.2 million doses, vaccinating less than 3% of its population -- a fraction of the doses administered in the United States and the United Kingdom -- and it is now falling behind most European countries as well.

By comparison, the US has vaccinated at least 10% of its population and the UK nearly 20%. Canadians have close ties to people in both countries, and many have started to hear from friends and family who have received a vaccine or have an appointment to get one.

As a retired nurse, Carol is all too aware that the new and highly transmissible variants are stalking seniors, and that the need for vaccines is growing ever more dire.

"It's such an immense thing this pandemic and nobody's ever had to do this before, and it's just, just troubleshooting all the time, and I realize that from a logical standpoint," Carol said. "But there is an emotional part of it and that's hard -- it's really hard, because you're second guessing yourself, you're second-guessing other people in power and saying, 'well how come they're doing it better there and we're not doing it better here and why aren't we getting the vaccine?'"

Carol says that while they're in relative good health, it's becoming harder to accept that there is no precise timeline for when they will get their vaccine.

Where are Canada's vaccines?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is sticking to his promise: Every Canadian who wants a vaccine will get one by September.

To make good on that promise, Canada says it has purchased nearly 400 million doses from seven vaccine manufacturers. To date only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been authorized for use in Canada.

While Canada says it has spent nearly a billion dollars to buy those vaccines, the country has not been at the front of the line in receiving those vaccines.

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have significantly slowed deliveries to Canada after a combination of manufacturing delays and demands from Europe, where Canada procures its doses, to restrict vaccine exports subject to European approval.

Canada did not attempt to procure any vaccine doses from the US after the Trump administration indicated it would not allow any vaccines to be exported.

"The turbulence week after week that we're seeing is of concern and we're watching it closely and we're staying on it," Trudeau said last week during a press conference. "But let me reassure people we are still very much on track as promised to get those six million doses by the end of March, because that's what the vaccine CEO's keep telling me, and I'm happy to reassure Canadians on that."

For Canada, vaccines may be plentiful by spring but months late to help the vulnerable who are still sheltering and fearful of new virus variants.

"The bottom line is that every single delay is lives lost, and that's the tragedy of it all," said Jillian Kohler, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and an adviser with the World Health Organization. "This is not something where we can just sit back and say, 'oh we didn't think this through' or 'we didn't we know that manufacturing of vaccines is complex and delays do happen,' but the reality is when we slow down (on vaccines) we have lives that are lost needlessly and that is unacceptable."

With the few vaccines that have been delivered, Canada has prioritized long-term care centers, places where Covid-19 has taken a deadly toll.

The government has also mounted an impressive effort to vaccinate remote and indigenous communities where healthcare services are lacking. The government indicated this week that in some northern outposts, more than 90% of the adult population had already been vaccinated.

This may indeed save lives, but in the short-term it will not change lives for most Canadians.

Professor Kohler says that instead of "hoarding" vaccines, the Canadian government should have realized months ago that without any domestic manufacturing capability, it would be at the mercy of manufacturers and a fierce global competition for doses.

"Having vaccine sovereignty is critical. Relying on exports for critical health needs doesn't frankly make sense when we're looking at trends of nationalism," she said.

Canada signed a tentative agreement with US vaccine firm Novavax to produce millions of doses of its Covid-19 vaccine candidate at a facility in Montreal. But that production likely won't begin until late this year at the earliest.

The Greens say they're reading all the headlines and understand the complexities, but they will miss their granddaughter's 8th birthday this month, and they say "that hurts."

"Yes, yeah absolutely, because I just feel like we're really behind the hay wagon so to speak you know?" Carol said, adding that, just like the Christmas holidays, they will celebrate the birthday virtually.

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