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Early round of December vaccines won’t reach the territory

Chief doctor says Pfizer vaccine not well-suited to small population of the North
Paula McMahon prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, as the mass public vaccination program gets underway, at the NHS Louisa Jordan Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland, on Dec. 8. The Canadian federal government announced Dec. 7 that 249,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will arrive in Canada before the end of the year, but none will be going to the territories. (Jeff J Mitchell/AP)

The federal government announced Dec. 7 that 249,000 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will arrive in Canada before the end of the year, but none will be going to the territories.

“We’ve worked very closely with the premiers in the northern territories as well as Indigenous leaders across the country. We know that they are a priority population and therefore will be part of those initial three million doses we’re expecting in the beginning of 2021,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, responding to reporters’ questions after a Monday morning press conference.

The Pfizer vaccine is considered more logistically difficult to distribute in the North because it requires storage at -80 C.

“I would simply add that the territories have indicated a preference to other vaccine candidates because of the complexity associated with distributing the Pfizer vaccine. We’re paying attention to the priorities and making those vaccines available as rapidly as possible once they’re approved,” said Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin, who is leading the logistical planning of the vaccine distribution.

“I think we need to be very clear, every Canadian who wants access to a vaccine is going to be receiving a vaccine,” added Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand during the presser.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said the Yukon has the ability to store and distribute the Pfizer vaccine, but indicated to the federal government that the Moderna vaccine is preferable because it only requires cold storage at -20 C.

On Dec. 8 Chief Medical Officer of Health Brendan Hanley said because the vaccine needs to be stored in the cold, it requires around 975 people to be vaccinated in a short time period.

“The Pfizer vaccine really is designed for large populations. It’s not just a question of the freezers, it’s all of the mechanisms that are involved in storage and transport,” he said. “And we don’t want to waste any dosage.”

Bypassing the North, the federal government has identified 14 distribution sites for urban areas and will have one in each province and two in the four largest provinces. The vaccines will be distributed to the provinces on a per-capita basis.

In the legislature on Dec. 7, opposition parties questioned the government’s approach and again placed pressure on the premier to release a public version of the current vaccination plan for the territories.

“We learned this week that the Yukon and other territories have requested that Pfizer not be employed in the Yukon. So that’s news (to us),” said Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon.

“Now we’ve heard that there is some planning underway, but it’s fluid. And we don’t know what it looks like,” Dixon said.

Silver reiterated that the territory is capable of distributing either vaccine and will be prepared for what they receive in the new year. He said a vaccination plan will be available soon, but it won’t be released until details are confirmed.

“Preparations in the territory are already underway and this includes identifying storage space, the number of required doses, staffing requirements, and operational plans for distribution in Whitehorse and the rural communities as well,” he said.

NDP leader Kate White also questioned the still-unknown vaccine plan, asking how the government is preparing to deal with the numbers of people and how they plan to combat misinformation about the safety of vaccines.

She agreed with Silver that the early vaccine rollout is good news for Canadians, but she said the Yukon government should be more transparent to help Yukoners know what to expect.

“My assumption is that the Pfizer vaccine isn’t ideal for us,” she said. “Who am I to challenge that? But if we had a clear understanding, and communications coming from the government about what to expect, I think that would solve a lot of the kind of political posturing that we see in the legislature,” she said.

The Premiers of NWT and Nunavut have both said they are waiting on the Moderna vaccine. The Canadian government’s expected three million vaccines in 2021 are anticipated to include both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Contact Haley Ritchie at