Although B.C. health officials previously sketched out how the provincial immunization plan will proceed, B.C. unveiled more specific information about the four phases of the program today.
B.C. Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and B.C. immunization executive lead Dr. Penny Ballem provided the details at a news conference.
In a news teleconference with media, Ballem said that this is a very involved undertaking but pointed out that the province has a “long legacy of pulling off very big events that are very complex and have many of the logistical challenges that this mass immunization program will have”. She cited the example of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and noted that the province has a lot of expertise to draw upon.
Approximately 7.4 million doses will be administered between April and September, and about four million British Columbians are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
The first two phases focus on people who are most at risk.
Phase 1 of the plan began in December with immunizations for those most vulnerable to severe illness or death, which included longterm care residents and healthcare workers, remote or at-risk Indigenous communities, and seniors.
Thus far, over 103,000 people have received their first dose of vaccine while second doses are now underway.
Phase 2, which begins in late February, will expand vaccinations to additional vulnerable populations, Indigenous communities, healthcare staff, and all seniors over the age of 80.
In March, pre-registration for the vaccine will begin online and by phone, beginning with those aged 79 to 75 years old. Those who are pre-registered will received a reminder about booking their appointment when they are eligible.
Phase 3 will start in April and will include people between the ages of 79 to 75 and progress in five-year age increments among those age 60 and over. In addition, people with certain underlying health conditions that make them clinically extremely vulnerable will be included in this phase.
As more vaccines are approved and become available, frontline essential workers or those who work in specific critical workplaces or industries may also be able to receive vaccines later in Phase 3.
When Horgan was asked about why frontline workers such as police, firefighters, teachers, and more were not given higher priority, Horgan said that he has heard from numerous advocates for various sectors arguing that their profession needs higher prioritization.
He said that Ballem and Henry have made it clear in their presentations that the science shows that age is the “dominant determinant factor on severe illness and death”. However, he reiterated what Ballem had said—that the program will be amended if more vaccine supply becomes available.
Ballem had said that risk increases exponentially over age 70, and explained that an age-based program is the most feasible to implement.
In July, Phase 4 will begin to address remaining populations, beginning with people aged 59 to 55 years old, and progress to younger groups by five-year age increments until everyone 18 years and older received vaccinations.
Anyone who cannot be immunized during a specific phase can be immunized at any time after their phase as well.
More details about registration, timing, availability, and immunization clinic locations will be available in the coming weeks. Clinics will be established in 172 communities in the province by March. Mobile sites will also be available and home visits will be made for those who cannot visit clinics.
Ballem added that geography may be one of the factors that influence how vaccinations are administered.
“In some case, we know that if it’s a very small community and vaccine-permitting, it’s possible that we may decide to vaccinate the whole community, rather than coming back three or four times to do it just on an age basis,” Ballem said.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be approved sometime within this quarter of the year and distributed across Canada in the second quarter of the year. Other vaccines from Johnson and Johnson and Medicago are also undergoing the approval process.
Henry said that she is hopeful that once enough people have been vaccinated by the summer, she thinks that we may be able to have “some types of our normal lives back again” but she cautioned that resumption of full social interactions isn’t likely until the autumn.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) has a webpage with answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about vaccinations. More information about B.C.'s immunization program is available the B.C. government website.