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(L-R): Tanya Harvey, an intensive care nurse at the Foothills Medical Centre Cell in Calgary, and Sahra Kaahiye, a respiratory therapist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, were the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020. // Photo courtesy of Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta.

COVID-19 vaccine rollout: Is 2021 going to be the comeback year we hoped for?

By Krishna Shetye, January 18 2020—

Thousands of doses of the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have already been administered in Alberta with no adverse side effects reported. The province has said the vaccines will be rolled out in several phases over the next year with the earliest doses already administered in Dec. 2020 to high-risk individuals and essential workers. According to the Government of Alberta website, the general public will have access to the vaccines by fall 2021. 

Does this mean the end is in sight?

Vaccines mark a new development in the almost year-long ordeal and have offered hope for a possible return to normalcy. However, there is still widespread public concern over the safety of the vaccines as well as their effectiveness. The provincial distribution strategy has also been criticized for its slow start by members of the medical community as well as the general public.

From the start of the pandemic, vaccine distribution has been an inevitable undertaking. In an interview with the Gauntlet, Dr. James D. Kellner, a member of the leadership group with the national COVID-19 immunity task force, drew comparisons to the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic which “affected many more people but wasn’t nearly as severe [as COVID-19].”

Dr. Kellner’s work with the task force includes acting as an expert on medical research and public health for representatives of Provincial Ministries of Health. He noted that analyzing the 2009 pandemic response was certainly a factor in approaching the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The big difference was that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was no vaccine and nothing on the horizon,” he said, indicating it was several months into the pandemic before some promising vaccines began to take shape and their distribution could be planned.

According to Dean Jon Meddings of the Cumming School of Medicine, the distribution process is further complicated by the limited supply of vaccines. 

In an interview with the Gauntlet, Meddings noted that the Pfizer vaccine is only available in limited quantities at the moment in addition to being very difficult to transport and administer outside of large facilities as the doses need to be frozen.

Kellner built upon this, pointing out that vaccine intervention is not uniform.

“There’s going to be several different kinds of vaccines all with different expectations and performance issues, already seen with [Moderna and Pfizer]. The [Pfizer vaccine] has to be kept at minus 70°C or colder, so it’s very constrained in terms of how you can deliver it. Moderna is a little bit more flexible and other vaccines coming up will be more flexible, but those other vaccines might not work as well.”

The unusual intensity with which possible vaccines have been researched and funded further complicates the perception of the vaccines as well as their distribution. 

“Never before in world history have so many smart people tried to develop something that makes a difference here,” said Kellner.

As the vaccines roll out to the general public over the next year, there appears to be some hesitancy toward being immunized, yet another complication to the distribution. This comes as no surprise to Kellner. 

“The rapidity of how [COVID-19] caused such a disruption was also different to me,” he said, adding that we went from first hearing about the disease in Wuhan “to the world shutting down over the course of two months — astonishing rates.”

Factoring in everything that’s happened since then, “it’s no surprise that there’s this clash of perspectives,” he added.”

The strict initial response of many provinces to the first wave of COVID-19 is also a major factor for rising public scrutiny of government policy and the vaccines, according to Kellner. As a result, during the second wave, Alberta attempted to strike a balance between “reducing likelihood, frequency and severity of disease,” but still allowing a semblance of normalcy.

“Alberta, on a per capita basis, did worse with the second wave than most of the places in Canada, because we took a more relaxed approach, [a] more permissive approach to allowing regular liberties. Nobody was trying to do anything that was going to lead to people getting sick and dying in Alberta, but there was definitely this desire to allow as much as possible to go on,” said Kellner.

In a poll taken by Instagram page UofConfessions, 86 per cent of the 3,020 university student respondents said they would get a vaccination once available. When comparing the student demographic to the general public, however, that number reduces significantly. According to  Kellner, polls done across Canada and Alberta have shown a larger minority of as many as 30 per cent stating they are not going to get the vaccine with a relatively small percentage saying they would not get it at all.

Kellner is involved with a large-scale safety study of vaccines across Canada and in Alberta to monitor vaccine safety after the first dose and second dose, as well as six months post administration. He remains optimistic despite the initial resistance.

“My hope is that as people see that the vaccines are effective, and appear to be safe, the resistance will begin melting away,” said Kellner. “It’ll be an ongoing issue to try to convince people that the vaccines are good enough and safe enough.”

The important question that remains of course is, when will Canadians see the positive effects of the vaccinations? 

According to Kellner, the vaccines will have no impact on containing the current second wave of the coronavirus. Assuming an abundance of doses is achieved, the hope is that enough vaccines are administered over the coming months “to prevent the next major third wave.”

“We won’t likely have immunized enough people by December to achieve herd immunity, whatever that number needs to be. It’s not yet known what that number needs to be […] and we’ll be hard pressed to get to a very high number like 90 per cent,” Kellner continued. “I’d like to think we could do it. But, the way we’re starting off indicates this would be improbable.”

It looks like the unfortunate truth is that 2021 is still going to be quite different than years past. At best, Canadians can hope for a slightly improved summer depending on the efficiency of phases being carried out through the spring. 

While a dramatic comeback is unlikely, from speaking with experts, it sounds like we can take heart from the fact that 2021 promises to be a year of resistance rather than acceptance of COVID-19.

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