With the first 900 doses of COVID-19 vaccine having arrived safely in Manitoba and ready to be plunged into the arms of health-care workers, the province will begin the "monumental" task of immunizing at-risk residents.
"This is a monumental challenge — a historic challenge," Premier Brian Pallister said during a media briefing Tuesday. "I ask all Manitobans for their patience and understanding as we gradually roll out our program as more vaccine becomes available."
On Tuesday morning, a cargo plane carrying the province’s initial shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, stored in ultra-cold freezers, touched down in Winnipeg.
The vials were transported to a COVID-19 immunization clinic at the Health Sciences Centre campus in Winnipeg. Over the next three days, 900 health-care workers are scheduled to receive their first of two required shots at the clinic.
"This is a long-awaited day of hope for Manitobans," Pallister said.
"I want to express, first off, my gratitude and — I know for many Manitobans — a little bit of envy for those folks who are going to be able to get their vaccines. We say: thank you and congratulations to you. We know our front-line workers have been stepping up in this pandemic, and we know that stepping up now and protecting them is the right thing to do."
As for other Manitobans eager to be immunized against COVID-19, Pallister said the province will be upfront and transparent about who it prioritizes for the vaccine, and when they might expect to receive the shot, as the campaign rolls out.
"This is a real scary time for a lot of people and they really would like to get the vaccine," Pallister said. "I think it’s important that that transparency continue and be extended to Manitobans, so they can see where they line up.
"And then, of course, we’ll have to all of us be patient and wait our turn."
By the end of March, the province hopes to have possession of enough Pfizer and Moderna (which has yet to be approved by Health Canada) vaccine doses to immunize more than 100,000 people.
It’s expected shipments will flow into the province on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, however, provincial officials have said it’s unclear how many doses will arrive with each delivery.
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said a second shipment of the Pfizer vaccine is expected in Manitoba next week. He couldn’t say how many doses might be on the plane.
"Those numbers continually evolve, so it’s hard to confirm the amount we’ll receive until a bit closer to the date," Roussin said.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba acting deputy chief public health officer, said the province needs more certainty on the volume of the next vaccine delivery before it can plan for the next stage of its roll-out.
"We have tens of thousands of health-care workers. I think those would be the most important individuals from a logistical standpoint, to start vaccinating with, and we’re working collectively to determine the next steps in how that vaccine rolls out to the general population, as well," Atwal said.
On Tuesday, Pallister said the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg will be the first immunization "super-site" in Manitoba. It will be outfitted to serve as a clinic, to store the vaccine, and as a site for administration and logistics.
An ultra-low temperature freezer was installed at the convention centre Monday; the clinic is expected to be fully operational in January.
The first round of health-care workers receiving the vaccine Wednesday will head to the convention centre in 21 days to receive their second dose of the two-part Pfizer shot.
Future clinics will be spread across the province in Brandon, Gimli, The Pas, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach. The province has purchased 60 specialized freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine.
Pending approval, Pallister said he expects Manitoba to receive the Moderna vaccine, which is more easily transported and can be distributed in remote and northern communities, in the new year.
The premier couldn’t say how many of the 168,000 doses promised Tuesday by the federal government — as part of an early delivery by Moderna — will be destined for Manitoba.
"I won’t speculate because I don’t see the vaccines yet, and I have no confirmation — hard confirmation — I only have speculation at this point," Pallister said.
— with files from Kevin Rollason
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.