Winnipeg doctors vaccinate dozens against COVID-19 at pop-up clinic in park

A Winnipeg doctor helped immunize dozens of people against COVID-19 in a Winnipeg park on Sunday after she says she was caught off guard when she received a shipment of AstraZeneca-Oxford doses from the province.

Dr. Leslea Walters said she was met with that surprise on Tuesday. 

While she remembers answering with “a resounding yes” when the medical director of the Millennium Medical Centre where she works asked if she wanted to become one of the clinic’s vaccinators, Walters said she didn’t know when those doses were coming until they arrived. 

Once that happened, she realized she suddenly had access to a stash of vaccines that she couldn’t use on most of her patients.

That’s because that particular vaccine is currently open to Manitobans 40 and over — and many of her patients are younger than that, which disqualifies them from receiving the AstraZeneca shots that make up Manitoba’s vaccine rollout in clinics and pharmacies.

“I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I had all these doses in the fridge with no plan,” Walters said on Sunday.

So she set to work, tweeting to her thousands of followers that she had about 80 extra doses available. Within about two hours, she was booked solid for clinics she ran Thursday until Saturday.

That’s when one of her physician colleagues in Winnipeg, Dr. Amanda Morris, saw a doctor in another province post online about running a curbside vaccine clinic and giving out hundreds of doses.

With a few doses left over herself, Walters offered them up for a similar pop-up clinic.

“I said … If you can rally your community, I will bring the things and we’ll do it. So that’s exactly what we did,” she said.

Walters said they kept the doses on ice to preserve them. But it only ended up taking a few hours for the vaccine clinic at Nellie McClung Park on Wolseley Avenue to get all its 36 doses into arms.

“It was jubilant. People were excited and relieved and grateful and so, so kind,” Walters said.

Shifting eligibility

Now, she said she plans to go back and assess how many doses her clinic still has left — and if her colleagues need them for their patients — before planning another pop-up clinic.

“If it turns out that I have more or if I am allocated more, then yes, we’ll be doing this again,” Walters said.

“It’s a little bit [of a] fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants situation. And that’s OK. It’s a race against time.”

On Friday, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended expanding use of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people over 30, as long as the benefits outweigh the risks of rare blood clots.

A spokesperson for the province said later that afternoon that Manitoba still needed some time to review and determine how to move forward with its own eligibility requirements for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“NACI’s recommendations on the use of AstraZeneca … was not a blanket recommendation of using this vaccine for all people aged 30 or older.  Eligibility for AstraZeneca will remain at 40 and over until further notice,” the spokesperson said in an email.

And as advice from Canada’s national vaccine advisors shifts with evolving evidence, Walters said she hopes Manitoba keeps up. 

“I’m really looking forward to our local government taking the word of experts who have recommended lowering the age and who have recommended that pregnant women have access to all of the available COVID vaccine types,” she said.