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Got AstraZeneca? Gen X Is Looking for You

Vaccines initially shunned for health concerns see big demand from 40-somethings across BC — and scarce supply.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 23 Apr

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

When generation X got the call to visit local pharmacies for their AstraZeneca vaccines on Monday, many were quick to step up, taking to their devices to book appointments at one of the hundreds of pharmacies administering the vaccine provincewide.

“As soon as they announced it on Monday, I started searching right away,” said Chris Mathieson, a 45-year-old Keremeos resident who runs the community’s historic Grist Mill, 45 minutes south of Penticton.

He found there was nothing within 100 kilometres of his home. “When I did the search, nothing even came up,” he said.

Demand for the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite initial safety concerns, was strong after the province invited anyone over 40 to get vaccinated at their local pharmacy.

But after an initial run on the vaccine, the province said it is almost out and doesn’t know when it will receive more. It’s disappointing news for many 40-somethings who say they’ve spent hours on the phone and put themselves on multiple wait lists in an effort to get vaccinated.

“There are still some pharmacies in the Lower Mainland, but I understand here on the Island the pharmacies are out, and in some other communities,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday. “There was a lot of uptake of the vaccine in pharmacies around the province, and we have very little of it left in the province right now.”

The decision to open up AstraZeneca to those over 40 was based on a rise in hospital numbers among younger people, Henry said. On Monday, she invited anyone “40 and above across the province” to get their shot.

“It will be available in pharmacies for people age 40 and above, in all the pharmacies across the province,” she said. “In addition, we’re starting targeted AstraZeneca-only clinics for people 40 and above in specific high-risk communities.”

The 13 high-transmission communities identified by the province are mostly located in Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities.

But as the province funnels remaining doses to high-risk communities, Henry said areas outside the Lower Mainland may wait a while for more doses.

“We have not received any more AstraZeneca since last week. We are hopeful that we will get more,” she said, adding that doses expected in April had been delayed. “We hope that we will get some more in the next little while and, yes, it will be targeted here on the Island as well as around the province.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix added that the province is receiving the lowest number of new vaccine shipments this week that it has seen “for some time.” He added that hundreds of thousands of doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are expected in the coming weeks.

The Tyee heard from 40-somethings across the province struggling to find vaccines. Some in Vancouver said they had put themselves on multiple wait lists and were weighing whether to break public health rules by travelling outside their health authority to access immunizations in nearby communities.

Others in the Kootenays, where Interior Health reportedly made recommendations to send doses elsewhere based on need, said their search had turned up empty.

Sarah McNeil, a Kamloops resident, messaged The Tyee to say that a local pharmacy that had reported having excess doses hours before Henry’s announcement Monday wasn’t taking calls on Tuesday.

“Now there doesn’t seem to be any to be found in Kamloops. I’ve called or registered for a waitlist for all of the 13 pharmacies in Kamloops that can deliver AstraZeneca, but haven’t heard anything,” she said. “I just hope that every available appointment is being booked and no vaccine is being wasted when there are long waits in smaller towns or other health authorities.”

In Terrace, in the province’s north, Pharmasave pharmacist Joanne Chaine said fear of wasting vaccines is what prompted her to initially turn down the opportunity to administer them.

“It wasn’t realistic to bring the vaccine in. The expiry date was really short,” she said about vaccines set to expire in late May. “I decided to wait, because I don’t want to waste any doses.”

Chaine said she is short-staffed but hopes to begin offering the vaccine in June, when there is an additional pharmacist on staff.

“It’s time consuming, because people have questions and need to fill out a form for consent,” she said. “The poking is not time consuming. It’s the paperwork around it.”

But even pharmacies without vaccines are feeling the impact.

Prince George pharmacist Maureen Kawinsky estimates she gets between 30 and 50 phone calls a day from people asking if she has AstraZeneca and wanting to know who does.

She said doses were sent to Prince George two weeks ago, primarily to big box stores, but went fast.

“They mostly were gone before Monday,” she said.

Her own store, Pharmasave City Centre, hasn’t seen any and she doesn’t know when they might arrive.

“They decided at the last minute they weren’t going to send me any,” she said. “I was told I was getting them. Then I was told I was not. Then they followed up with me the following Tuesday and said, ‘Will you take them if we have them?’”

Despite assuring the province she would, the doses never arrived. “Until I’ve got a vaccine in my hands, I assume we don’t have any,” she said.

When they do arrive, it will be all-hands-on-deck to get needles in arms, she said.

“I’ve got other pharmacists that would be willing to come in and do the injections,” Kawinsky said. “I mean, it needs to get done.”

Northern pharmacies offering the vaccine are limited, according to a provincial database. Dawson Creek, in the northeast, is the only high-transmission community identified by the province outside the Lower Mainland. With the highest case counts per capita in the province, the community’s provincially designated AstraZeneca clinic opens Monday.

In Terrace, Shoppers Drug Mart and Save-On-Foods are administering AstraZeneca but referred calls to head office. The Tyee did not receive a response from Save-On-Foods before deadline.

In an emailed statement from Loblaw, owner of Shoppers Drug Mart, the company said it is pleased the province has expanded pharmacies’ role in COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

“Demand is definitely high with the expanded age group, but in general many of our Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaw pharmacies do still have vaccines available and continue to work hard to get vaccines into arms,” it said, adding that patients looking to book an appointment can register on the company’s website or at their local pharmacy.

“This will vary by pharmacy location, but on average we can do anywhere between 40 to over a hundred vaccines in a day in each location, supply allowing,” it said.

But that is not possible in the East Kootenay. MLA Tom Shypitka said there’s nothing available east of Vernon. He credited Kootenay residents with staying safe and keeping numbers low, but said the region often feels forgotten by government.

“We’ve got a bit of a chip on our shoulders, because sometimes you don’t get thought about out here,” he said. “Victoria’s a thousand kilometres and six mountain passes away, so we get a little uptight that we don’t get thought about. This situation we’re seeing right now pretty much drives it home.”

At 58, Shypitka is still waiting for his own vaccine. He said he’s registered but hasn’t heard anything.

At Thursday’s briefing, Henry encouraged everyone who is eligible to register for their vaccine even if they get vaccinated at a pharmacy, saying it streamlines the process and will help to connect people with their second doses.

The province also announced that as of today, anyone 18 and older is eligible to register through the provincial system.

Starting Thursday evening, the province was beginning to book people 60 and older for vaccination appointments.

Back in Keremeos, Mathieson continues to wait. Surrounded by the rolling lawns, historical buildings and willow trees at the Grist Mill, he says he’s able to sit tight and is happy for his friends in urban areas who are getting immunized this week.

“I’m thrilled for them,” he said. “I can wait. I mean, I’ve waited 13 months. I could wait a little longer.”

While his job is relatively low risk, he comes in contact with thousands of visitors who camp at the site’s campground each summer and would feel better if vaccinated.

But at the moment, with travel restrictions in place, the season is on hold until at least late May, he said.

“We’re not frontline workers in the way that a grocery store worker is or something like that, but it’s still important to us because we’re representatives of a very small, very vulnerable community,” he says, noting the high number of retirees.

“It’s like being in the grocery store. I’ve got a lot of items, somebody right behind me has only a few items. I’m going to let them go ahead of me. I feel the same way about the vaccine — go ahead. I’ll wait. I’ll get it eventually.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus

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