The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in Newfoundland and Labrador were administered, going to two frontline health professionals, marking the beginning of what is expected to be a vaccination implantation plan of at least one year.
Ellen Foley-Vick, registered nurse in public health, and Dr. Jatin Morkar, clinical head of the medical program, received the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech on Wednesday afternoon at Memorial University’s medical school in St. John’s.
The first injection was administered by the Medical Director of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.
“I never felt anything,” said Foley-Vick, laughing after receiving the vaccine. “It was great.”
Foley-Vick did not tell many of her friends and family that she would be the first to get the vaccine, instead, she allowed them to have a nice surprise on Wednesday. But she said the vaccine is not just for your own safety.
“It is a wonderful feeling to be recognized and to have this opportunity. I feel it is an early Christmas gift, in a way,” she said.
“But I’m doing this to represent – it’s not just for me, it’s for everyone else who worked on this COVID pandemic and I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I encourage everyone, of course, to get the vaccine.”
Before the injections were administered, Premier Andrew Furey said that Dr. Morkar was one of the first to raise his hands to volunteer to treat patients with COVID-19 when the pandemic struck.
“It’s painless,” Morkar can be heard saying as Fitzgerald gives him the province’s second vaccination injection.
In the early days of the pandemic, Morkar had to isolate himself to treat patients with COVID-19, meaning that he saw his family only via Skype and Zoom calls.
“Just a sense of relief. A sense that the end is near,” said Morkar.
“A lot has changed in the world. I mean, we all personally sacrifice a lot. I’ve seen friends, I’ve seen relatives lose jobs and just the relief that we’re going back to normal, the sense that this will end.”
Working at Eastern Health’s COVID-19 response unit from the start has left its mark on Morkar, who said he hoped people would continue to take the pandemic seriously and follow health guidelines while the vaccination process is underway.
“We don’t want to see the active COVID unit, we don’t want to see patients there. It was stressful for the patients, the team and the families. One of the worst things I experienced working in that ward and having sick patients without family members being able to visit them, “said Morkar.
“I remember a case where there were actually two family members in the hospital and it was … the pain of it was something I will never recover from.”
‘This is a historic day’
The first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in St. John’s on Tuesday, with more doses set to arrive probably next week.
Public health officials on Wednesday released their vaccination plan outlining who will be given priority. The first doses will be administered to frontline health professionals who would respond to an outbreak of the virus.
“These are the men and women who are on the front lines, putting themselves at risk to protect the public, and then they will receive the first round of vaccines,” said Furey early Wednesday morning.
Furey said the media could be there when the first vaccination happens.
“This is a historic day and, as we suggested when it was discussed in the past, it was a balance between ensuring that the first participant would, of course, consent to having a media availability and providing logistics with Eastern Health,” said Furey Segunda in the morning.
Eastern Health is responsible for running the vaccination clinic, and the vaccine response team set up by public health officials has established a list of workers who will receive the first doses, said Furey.
“I certainly think the priority is for women and men who would be working in the units themselves, ventilated units, ICU units, emergency rooms, people who would be exposed on the front lines,” said Furey.
“I assume there will also be support personnel involved, but I am not familiar with that level of detail at this particular time.”
Medical Director of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, described what she called the province’s “fluid plan” for the COVID-19 vaccine during a meeting on Wednesday morning. She emphasized that the plan should change over the weeks, with the change in information and availability of vaccines.
Fitzgerald said the province expects two vaccines to be available during the first quarter – January to March – 2021. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only vaccine currently approved and administered in Canada, but a Moderna vaccine is expected to be approved by regulators in the coming weeks.
Priority groups outlined
Health officials say they hope to inoculate 28,000 people in NL using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the end of March. There are a number of logistical challenges with this vaccine, which require storage in an ultra-low-temperature freezer and cannot be redistributed, meaning that it must be stored and administered, for the time being, at St. John’s Health Sciences Center.
For the majority of the healthiest and youngest population, we will be talking about summer.– Dr. Janice Fitzgerald
Pending approval, the Modern vaccine should arrive in January. It has far fewer restrictions and is more stable than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and 9,000 people are expected to receive the vaccine in the first three months of 2021.
Fitzgerald said that although the Modern vaccine, once approved, is easier to transport, the supply of the vaccine is part of a nationally negotiated agreement.
“There is not much choice as to what we will have at the moment,” said Fitzgerald.
“At this point, the preferred vaccine is an approved, effective and safe vaccine, whatever the vaccine may be, and we are going to deal with the challenges that come with that vaccine.”
Initial vaccine delivery will go to priority groups, including elderly people living in long-term care facilities, health workers at high risk of exposure, elderly residents – Fitzgerald said the guidance prioritizes those over 80 – and remote or isolated indigenous communities.
The vaccine plan will be implemented in three phases: the first will be to prioritize healthcare professionals to maximize the use of the initial delivery of the Pfizer-BioNTech supply. Since it is not yet transportable, the regional health authorities will coordinate the movement of personnel for a common vaccination. Administrative locations are planned for St. John’s, Gander, Corner Brook, Labrador City / Wabush and Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Fitzgerald said he expects inoculation to happen quickly, pointing to the speed of flu clinics as an example of how vaccinations will be carried out. The province received 1,950 doses of the product Pfizer-BioNTech. With two required doses per person, this means that 975 people will receive the vaccine for now. A second set of vaccines is expected to arrive in the province next week.
“I don’t think it will be long before 975 doses are delivered. Some days, maybe, ”she said.
Moving vaccines for people
The second phase will have almost the same activities as the first phase, although it is also responsible for the arrival of the Moderna vaccine – or an altered mobility of the Pfizer vaccine.
“Instead of transferring people to the vaccine, we will be able to transfer the vaccine to people,” said Fitzgerald.
The transition to Phase 3 will depend on conditions, but it would see vaccine delivery to the general public. At this point, vaccines are expected to be in a more stable state and can be administered without the logistical challenges we face today.
“It certainly doesn’t look like we’re moving there before June, which would be the end of the second quarter, and maybe during the summer. But again, that’s an estimate based on what we know now – it could change,” Fitzgerald said.
“For the majority of the healthiest and youngest population, we will talk about summer.”
Fitzgerald said there will be “very direct and obvious communication” to let people know when they will be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and the four regional health officials will be part of that communication plan.
The vaccination plan will be reviewed and updated as health authorities move through priority groups, the number and types of vaccines available increase and restrictions on distribution, storage and transportation are modified by manufacturers.
‘This is a great day’
Furey said that the AstraZeneca vaccine is the third to be approved, and that one of them has proved to be even more stable and can be shipped much more easily.
“All of these variables are being modeled on what the mass distribution of this vaccine and this vaccination program will be approaching in 2021,” said Furey.
It is the beginning of the end.– Dr. Janice Fitzgerald
Even with the launch of the vaccine, Furey urged people to remain cautious.
“This is a great day for Newfoundland and Labrador. Everyone should take note of where they are today in this historic moment,” he said.
“But don’t let your guard down, because this is just a tool we have to move forward, and it will be some time before we can start to relax some of the precautions that we all implemented during this pandemic.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Fitzgerald, who said that she and her fellow health workers are “pleasantly surprised” at the speed with which a vaccine was developed for a virus that appeared in the world a year ago.
She credits unprecedented international cooperation between scientists and health officials.
“I am feeling very hopeful today. I think everyone on the team is excited today because of that, and that we can give the first vaccines, ”she said.
“I think we are all very proud and very happy to be part of this, so yes, there is only a feeling of hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. We know that there is still a lot of work to do, but it is easier to know that it is the beginning of the end. “
As of Tuesday, Newfoundland and Labrador had 20 active cases of COVID-19. The total number of cases in the province since March is 359.