Pallister blames COVID-19 vaccine supply for delays as over 2/3 of Manitoba’s doses unused

Every Manitoban who wants the COVID-19 vaccine could have it by the end of March if the federal government provided enough doses, Premier Brian Pallister claimed on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately that’s not going to be possible, because the federal government’s process of getting vaccines to Canada means instead of a fire hose, we’re working with a bit of a squirt gun right now,” he said during a news conference Wednesday.

Manitoba has distributed fewer than a third of the vaccine doses it has received from the federal government, according to a bulletin released by the provincial government Wednesday afternoon, and the rollout has lagged in many other provinces. 

Canada has received more than 424,050 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines — but only 35 per cent of those doses have been administered by the provinces, with roughly 148,000 Canadians having received a shot so far. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday he planned to raise the issue of the slow vaccine rollout with the premiers in a conference call later this week.

“I think Canadians, including me, are frustrated to see vaccines in freezers and not in people’s arms,” Trudeau said. 

“That’s why we’re going to continue working closely with the provinces both to deliver vaccines to the provinces and to support them as they need it in terms of getting more vaccines out to vulnerable populations and front-line workers as quickly as possible.”

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, right, listens in as Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, speaks during the province’s COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg on Monday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Pallister said those comments were not “helpful,” and supply was the limiting factor.

“It’s important to understand that we’re ready to do more as soon as we get more of the vaccine from Ottawa,” he said.

Slow rollout

Manitoba has received a total of 22,230 doses of the vaccine. Since the province launched its vaccination program on Dec. 16, about 7,000 doses had been administered to 5,165 people, as of Tuesday.

The federal government is in charge of procuring the vaccine from manufacturers, and has distributed almost 500,000 doses of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines across the country since mid-December. Each province and territory receives doses on a per-capita basis, and each provincial government is responsible for getting the vaccines into the arms of its population.

There are currently about 17,000 doses of Pfizer in Manitoba, and the province has also received 7,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine, with 5,300 slated to go to First Nations and the rest to personal care homes, but none of those doses have been administered yet. 

Approximately two per cent of Manitobans are expected to be vaccinated by the end of January and four per cent by the end of February, the province said in a news release.

Manitoba is expected to receive up to 228,000 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech by March 31.

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical officer of health for Manitoba Health, agreed that the main factor limiting the number of people getting the vaccine is supply, although she would not speculate on whether Manitoba could actually vaccinate all eligible people in the province by the end of March.

“I can absolutely confirm that we do have a scale-up plan in place and could increase our numbers substantially if the vaccine were available,” she said. 

In addition to the low supply, Pallister blamed the slow rollout so far on the need to ensure only eligible people receive the vaccine, as well as logistical challenges, including difficulties getting the vaccine to remote and isolated First Nations communities, and the need to consult with First Nations leaders on which communities should get priority. 

“Pukatawagan isn’t P.E.I. Thompson isn’t Toronto,” Pallister said. “Rolling out a vaccine in Manitoba has more challenges and our First Nations leadership has risen to the challenge of coming up with a game plan that we believe can work.”

Hiring vaccine director

The provincial government is in the process of hiring a director to oversee the province’s immunization program.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew questioned why the provincial government didn’t hire someone to do that job sooner. 

“Why wouldn’t you hire this person last summer, last fall, to oversee the vaccine rollout? You’re trying to save three months’ salary? And now it’s costing us valuable time in terms of the vaccination program,” Kinew said.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said his party has heard from health workers who have applied to work in vaccination clinics, but didn’t receive a response.

“The fact is everyone knew this was coming, just as everyone knew the second wave was coming, and [Pallister] ignored everyone who told him to get ready.

The province said in a news release it is increasing the number of immunizers by widening the scope of eligible workers and offering a micro-credential course through Red River College to meet any future increase in supply.

On Wednesday, the province announced it had a plan to make the first dose of the vaccine available to the nearly 10,000 long-term care home residents in the province within four weeks, starting Monday.

The first large-scale vaccination site opened at the RBC Convention Centre on Monday. A second is set to open at the Keystone Centre in Brandon on Jan. 18, and a third will open in Thompson in early February.