Province using Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to vaccinate care home residents in Winnipeg

Vaccination teams heading into personal care homes in Winnipeg have doses of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines in their kits.

This marks the first time the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has much stricter storage and transportation requirements than Moderna’s, has been used outside of a hospital or vaccination supersite in Manitoba.

“We are exploring some limited ways that we might be able to move Pfizer to various sites,” said Joss Reimer, a medical officer for Manitoba Health and a member of Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine implementation task force.

Manitoba has received significantly more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than the Moderna vaccine — 22,230 versus 7,300. 

The storage requirements for the former — which must be stored in a freezer at –80 C to –60 C, or in a thermal container at –90 C to –60 C — have meant that until now, it could only be given in large institutional settings.

Some other provinces, such as Quebec, have used the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to immunize personal care home residents, and now Manitoba has joined them.

“Pfizer has given us very strict requirements around the storage and transportation of their vaccine,” said Reimer.

“If we choose to move it, despite their recommendations not to, they have given some guidance about how to do that in the most safe ways.”

Margaret Watson, 94, a resident at Oakview Place long-term care residence, smiles after getting her COVID-19 vaccine at the Winnipeg care home on Monday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Once the vaccine is thawed, it can be stored in a refrigerator for approximately five days. Once it has been diluted, it has about six hours before it must be injected into someone’s arm before it is wasted, according to Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s acting deputy chief provincial public health officer.

On Monday, about 120 residents at Oakview Place in Winnipeg became the first personal care home residents outside of a First Nation to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Manitoba. More Oakview residents were set to receive their first dose on Tuesday.

The province did not have a breakdown of how many of those doses were the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. 

First Nations and rural vaccinations

First Nations in Manitoba started receiving shipments of the Moderna vaccine last week, with 5,300 doses earmarked for the 63 First Nations in the province. 

At a news conference on Tuesday, First Nations leaders said they were celebrating the arrival of the vaccine, while warning their members against misinformation from COVID-19 skeptics and vaccine opponents.

“We were trying to assure them the vaccine is quite safe and it’s meant to help,” said Chief Larson Anderson of Norway House Cree Nation.

A senior becomes the first in Peguis First Nation to get the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Chief Glenn Hudson says as of Monday night, approximately 70 people had been vaccinated. (Peguis First Nation/Facebook)

The province is in the process of putting together teams to get the Moderna vaccine to rural areas once more doses become available, Premier Brian Pallister said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“With the Moderna vaccine, we’ll be able to do more remote work with it.… That’s going to add in our ability to get vaccines out to folks” who might not be able to safely travel to a larger vaccine distribution site, he said.

Ramping up capacity

In an update on Monday, the Manitoba government said it had administered 10,353 of the 29,530 doses it’s received.

Manitoba currently ranks second-last, ahead of only Nova Scotia, in terms of the percentage of vaccines it has received that have been given to people. 

Pallister deflected criticism that Manitoba’s rollout of the vaccine has been slow. 

“I bristle at the suggestion that somehow Manitoba’s planning — done so intensely over such a long period by so many civil servants — is not good,” he said Tuesday. 

“It’s great, and it needs to be understood to be great.”

Factors such as the need to prioritize certain groups due to limited supply of vaccine from the federal government, and the need to consult with First Nations leaders and transport the vaccine to remote communities, have somewhat delayed the distribution of the vaccine in the province, Pallister said.

Manitoba is in the process of setting up a second vaccination site in Brandon, due to open next week.

“Our supersites have just ramped up, so give us a break. It’s been one week” since the supersite at RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg opened, the premier said.

The province is in the process of hiring more people to work as immunizers at its clinics, and has received more applications than it needs to fulfil all of its current appointments, Reimer said. 

“But we know that these numbers need to continue to go up,” she said. 

The province aims to have 50 per cent more staff on hand for its immunization clinics than it needs, in case more vaccines become available and the province needs to quickly ramp up capacity. She encouraged anyone who wants to work as an immunizer to keep applying.