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Owners of Alberta pharmacies offer glimpse into what COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been like

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 vaccine rollout at Alberta pharmacies experiences supply and demand issues' COVID-19 vaccine rollout at Alberta pharmacies experiences supply and demand issues
Since March 1, thousands of Albertans have received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine from their local pharmacies. But how does that work? Who's eligible to get vaccinated there, and when? Sarah Ryan takes a closer look at the pharmacy rollout – Mar 25, 2021

At the beginning of March, Alberta Health sent thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccines to pharmacies in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer.

The program has since expanded across Alberta, and now includes more than 250 pharmacies. Right now, people 65 and older who have booked appointments in advance are being vaccinated at pharmacies.

“We have to be very organized with our appointment schedule and fit that into our normal routine of running a full-time clinical pharmacy,” explained pharmacist Pam Lavold, who is also the owner of The Medicine Shoppe Whitemud Crossing in Edmonton.

She said demand for the vaccines has been through the roof.

“We ended up having 1,600 people on our waiting list for 200 doses of the vaccine,” Lavold said.

READ MORE: All Canadians could get 1 dose of COVID-19 vaccine by summer — if all goes well

Bruce Winston, the president of the Alberta Pharmacists’ Association, said his Calgary pharmacies experienced the same sky-high levels of interest.

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“The day that Phase 2A (of Alberta’s vaccine rollout) opened, within just a few hours, we had over 800 voicemails that we had to slug through,” he said.

“Behind the scenes, it’s been a lot of work.”

That work is made more challenging due to the nature of the Pfizer vaccine. The frozen vaccine comes to pharmacies thawed.

“We have 120 hours from the time that it is taken out of the freezer at the distribution centre to use it,” Lavold explained.

Winston said by the time the pharmacies get the shipment, they usually have four days to administer all the shots before they expire.

But Lavold has noticed a problem with people booking appointments in multiple places — hedging their bets in an attempt to get the shot more quickly.

“When people book multiple appointments at different pharmacies and then cancel, that really effects our ability to use up the doses we have,” she explained.

“So it’s really important that people book one appointment at one spot — whether it be a pharmacy or Alberta Health Services.”

Both Lavold and Winston said they’re working to ensure there’s no wasted doses at their pharmacies. They’re receiving between 200 and 250 doses per week.

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“If someone doesn’t show up, or for some reason they can’t come in and make that time, then we have a standby list where we can call people on a moment’s notice so we don’t have any wastage,” Lavold said.

In a statement issued to Global News, Alberta Health said “wastage has been incredibly rare in our immunization program.”

“At Alberta Health Services, there has been minimal vaccine wastage and it currently totals approximately 0.2 per cent. At pharmacies, we are seeing even less,” the health authority said.

Winston said rules do not allow for vaccine to be moved between pharmacies because of storage requirements.

However, he said Alberta Health has given pharmacies some discretion when it comes to using up the supply before it expires.

“Try to find somebody who is in the same grouping, or try to find somebody in the next age grouping or the next phase,” he said, referencing the guidelines pharmacies have been given.

Winston said the issue isn’t as time-sensitive with the Moderna vaccine. There’s 30 days to use those doses, however, that product has its own issues with supply.

“Right now, we just don’t have a steady supply of the Moderna vaccine,” he said.

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“An example would be my location in Airdrie; it was supposed to start this week, but we have not received our Moderna vaccine.”

Winston said the delays and uncertainty make it challenging for pharmacies because they don’t want to book appointments and then have to cancel them.

“Now we’re all kind of waiting to see when is that next allotment going to hit the pharmacy so we can continue to populate our schedule,” he said.

Winston said no pharmacies in Alberta have received AstraZeneca vaccine to this point.

Lavold had some advice for those waiting for the province to announce the next step of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

“We’re not sure when Phase 2B is going to be rolled out, but it might be a good idea to get on a waiting list with your pharmacy,” she said.

Second doses of vaccine are currently being scheduled four months out.

To keep up with the workload, Winston has hired some temporary pharmacists at his stores.

He said despite the challenges with scheduling, it’s rewarding to be part of the rollout.

“It’s such an emotional experience because it feels like you’re giving these seniors back their freedom,” he said.

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“When I say, ‘I’m booking your vaccination for next week,’ I literally have had people crying on the phone. They are so excited.”

Winston is hopeful with time, the vaccine supply with stabilize so more pharmacies can take part. He noted that of the 1,500 pharmacies in Alberta, 1,300 have expressed a desire to help administer the shots.

READ MORE: Alberta aims to have 500 pharmacies delivering COVID-19 vaccines by early April

“There are enough doses for everyone in 2A to book their appointment and receive the vaccine by March 31,” Alberta Health said in a statement.

“We encourage anyone in Phase 2A who hasn’t booked, or currently scheduled to receive an appointment in April, to contact a pharmacy near them or AHS to get the vaccine as soon as possible.”

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