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Saskatchewan using H1N1 experience in COVID-19 vaccine rollout

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WATCH: Saskatchewan's plan for COVID-19 vaccinations is expected to be unveiled next week and will incorporate experiences from the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 – Dec 5, 2020

The Saskatchewan government is set to unveil its COVID-19 vaccination plan next week, relying in part on the province’s experience delivering the H1N1 vaccine.

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman said the government developed a “very robust” plan more than a decade ago in response to the H1N1 (or swine flu) pandemic in 2009, which included the involvement of current chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab.

Read more: Pfizer cuts COVID-19 vaccine delivery by half for 2020 due to supply chain issues

University of Saskatchewan (USask) medical anthropologist Pamela Downe said there will likely be numerous similarities, including the fact that the coronavirus vaccine will arrive in multiple stages. She told Global News there will also be close safety monitoring surrounding transportation and storage.

However, there are new obstacles in the current pandemic.

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“Transporting and storing those vaccines are going to require a whole different level of infrastructure, but we do have the capacity for that infrastructure,” Downe said.

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The Pfizer vaccine in particular needs unprecedented, ultra-cold storage. Downe said social distancing protocols will also mean there won’t be mass gatherings of people waiting to get vaccinated like the province has seen at past flu clinics.

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Unlike the H1N1 pandemic, seniors in long-term care will be the top priority. In 2009, the provincial government announced plans to vaccinate children first because they were the greatest vectors for transmission. Health-care workers have been prioritized in both pandemics.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine won’t be mandatory, Saskatchewan health minister says

The greatest challenge in stopping COVID-19 with a vaccine, Downe said, will likely be reaching out to be people who might be hesitant to get the shot.

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“A vaccination program needs public uptake to be successful,” Downe added. “In terms of COVID-19, I think we’re seeing a greater intensity around concern, hesitancy and even vehement rejection of the vaccine.”

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She said the solution needs to go beyond public service announcements to get “boots on the ground,” working and collaborating with community leaders.

Typically, one-third of people in Saskatchewan get the flu shot every year. Dr. Shahab said Wednesday that roughly half of residents received the flu shot in 2020.

Read more: Canadians worry vaccine won’t come fast enough to stop coronavirus surge: Ipsos

A target of 80 per cent of the population is likely needed to properly stop COVID-19 from spreading, according to Dr. Cory Neudorf, a public health physician and USask health and epidemiology professor.

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“There is still a very rigorous safety process going on right now before this is being regulated, and that’s being done in multiple countries,” Neudorf said.

Coronavirus vaccines being considered by Health Canada have a genetic code that the body uses to create virus sub-units, rather than injecting the virus itself.

“It’s a completely different technology than what was used [for H1N1],” Neudorf said.

He said the progress in vaccines since 2009 has been “huge” with nearly 200 coronavirus vaccine candidates representing a “real advancement.”