Less than an hour after the province announced the London Health Sciences Centre was among 17 additional hospitals that will be receiving Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine over the next two weeks, local officials are providing further details.
LHSC and the Middlesex-London Health Unit say health-care workers in local long-term care and retirement homes, as well as some hospital staff, will be the first in the region to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The vaccination program will “get underway as soon as possible.”
Officials say doses are expected to arrive “over the next few days” and all the necessary infrastructure is already in place to allow for the vaccine to be administrated as soon as the shipment arrives.
“You can imagine that we’ve all been looking forward to this day intensely and working very hard over the last couple of weeks to bring this together,” MLHU medical officer of health Dr. Chris Mackie told Global News.
“A huge credit to the leadership at London Health Sciences Centre, who’s been a really fantastic partner on all of this. It’s really exciting to be here.”
LHSC COO Neil Johnson tells Global News the announcement marks a pivot to being proactive from being reactive in the battle against COVID-19.
“We’ll be pulling out all the stops this weekend to make sure that we’re ready to launch our clinics next week,” he said.
“We’re really excited. This is really a time of optimism for all of our staff and physicians, but also, I think, for our community.”
“A limited number of doses” is expected to be administered at the site of the field hospital at the Western Fair District Agriplex.
Johnson stresses that the field hospital will still be ready to go if needed.
“We haven’t dismantled that at all. We didn’t use all of the space in the Agriplex, so we still have room to maneuver and change things as we go. So, if we needed to launch the field hospital, we’d make a few operational changes in this vaccine clinic. We’ve got a lot of flexibility in that space.”
While the province has said it is expecting to obtain up to 90,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine from the federal government before the end of the year, it is unclear how many doses London will receive or exactly what day the doses will arrive.
“We can tell you that it will be soon and it will be quite small numbers of doses for a very select group of health care providers,” Mackie said.
“Public health, for example, won’t even be in that very first round of doses. It’ll will go to those who are caring for patients that are at the highest need.”
Johnson said he’s very confident in the framework in place locally, provincially, and nationally when it comes to vaccine priority.
“We’re taking it from a risk perspective of who will benefit and who will protect our communities most by having the early-stage vaccine.”
While he has not yet been told when further shipments will arrive, Johnson anticipates a “build over time” as “we get other vaccines, like the Moderna vaccine or other ones that are in the regulatory pipeline.”
Mackie anticipates that “we should have decent doses in the province” before the end of March, but it is unclear when vaccines will be available to the general public.
“The other side of that though is, as we start to protect those that are most vulnerable of severe outcomes – death and hospitalization – then it means that we may be able to start relaxing some of the public health measures that have been so difficult for so many of us.”
When it comes to implementing the local vaccination program, LHSC is providing “leadership in areas of clinical services, information technology, facilities, and logistics.”
Johnson says that includes items like registering patients, gathering consent, administering the vaccine, setting up facilities at the Agriplex, and all the necessary IT infrastructure the province has provided to track the vaccines.
“It’s really setting up — from scratch — a clinic,” Johnson explained.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also presents an added challenge in that it must be shipped and stored at -70 C.
“I can’t go into the specifics of it for a variety of reasons, but the challenges that Pfizer has to ship it is one thing, and then of course, we have had to secure ultra-low temperature freezers,” he explained.
“We have a series of standard operating processes that we’re using to ensure that we’re safely handling the vaccine and as well making sure that our staff are safe with working with ultra-low temperature freezers like that as well, too.
“The manufacturer, the province, and even the early sites in Toronto and Ottawa have been very helpful in providing us with background information about how we manage that.”
He also said MLHU has been “invaluable” in giving advice.
“They have lots of experience running mass vaccination clinics. So we’re working really closely with MLHU and their team to put this all into place.”
The health unit’s role also includes providing support in determining who should get the vaccine first, based on the current state of the pandemic in the region and dialogue with neighbouring public health units, Southwestern Public Health and Huron Perth Public Health.
— with files from Global News’ Gabby Rodrigues and Reuters.