I spent two days shopping around for a pharmacist willing to give me an AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, even though I’m not eligible under the province’s slow rollout plan. I finally found one.
This is what it has come to for people in their mid-50s, who desperately want to get jabbed, not only to protect themselves and their families, but to contribute to the broad goal of reaching herd immunity.
Health Canada says the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe for all age groups. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends it for anyone 55 and older (they're considering lowering the age). Most provinces follow those guidelines.
Here, the province is stubbornly sticking to its edict that only those with an underlying health condition aged 55 to 64 can get the AstraZeneca vaccine (there are no restrictions for those 65 and over). That may have been the right choice early in the rollout to reach as many high-risk people as possible. But now, many pharmacists can’t find enough people who meet that criteria. So, doses are piling up in their fridges. They can’t get rid of the stuff.
Only 5,340 doses of AstraZeneca were administered by pharmacists and medical clinics over the past week — an average of 763 per day. As of Friday, there were 59,242 doses of AstraZeneca sitting in fridges. At that rate, it would take another 11 weeks to administer those doses.
I’m 56 and have no underlying health conditions. I’m not eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine under Manitoba’s slow rollout regime. But like many people my age, I shopped around for a pharmacy willing to give me one anyway.
Some of the larger pharmacies are flat out denying anyone who doesn’t meet the province’s eligibility rules. They probably don’t want the liability. At the end of the day, it’s the province’s responsibility to ensure needles get into arms as fast as possible, not theirs.
However, some pharmacies (small and large) are putting people like me on standby lists. Each AstraZeneca vial has about 10 doses. It can only be stored for 48 hours at fridge temperatures once it has been opened. After that, it spoils. Pharmacists don’t want to open a vial until they have 10 people lined up for shots. Some are actively recruiting (and asking customers for help in some cases) to find enough people to warrant opening a vial.
People my age are literally texting each other trying to recruit a posse of 10 so a pharmacy can crack open a vial. It's pathetic.
Some pharmacies keep standby lists and contact people to fill cancelled appointments. Those standby lists may include people who are 55 and over, but don’t meet the province’s eligibility rules.
Other pharmacies are simply bypassing the province’s criteria altogether and giving doses to anyone 55 and over. The stakes are too high not to. If they don’t, it will take weeks to dole out their supply. The current batch of AstraZeneca expires at the end of May.
"We want to minimize the confusion to Manitobans and not change the eligibility more times than is necessary." ‐ Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the province’s vaccine task force
The province should immediately open AstraZeneca to everyone over 55. It’s gross negligence not to. Every day that doses sit in fridges is another day people are at risk of severe illness and death.
Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for the province’s vaccine task force, says they don’t want to expand eligibility right now because it may "confuse" Manitobans. Instead, they’re going to wait for another National Advisory Committee on Immunization update (even though NACI already allows all people over 55 to receive AstraZeneca).
"We want to minimize the confusion to Manitobans and not change the eligibility more times than is necessary," Reimer said Friday.
They prefer to risk death and severe illness instead.
Expanding eligibility to all people 55 and over would make it simpler, not more confusing. What exists now is confusing: a patchwork of pharmacies that may or may not give doses to people in that age group, based on a complicated list of underlying health conditions that is open to interpretation.
I get my AstraZeneca shot Tuesday.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.