The COVID-19 pandemic has made an indelible mark on Canadian society. Over 14,000 Canadian citizens have lost their lives to this virus as of December 21, 2020. 508,000 people in total have been diagnosed and 417,000 patients have been able to recover.

While the Canadian healthcare system is excellent and free to all, the availability of care can be patchy in rural and underserved areas. It may fall to local healthcare professionals like pharmacists to form the last link in the chain of the COVID vaccine distribution system.

Licensed pharmacist Andrew Hanna, the owner of Cotton Mill Pharmacy, believes that the local community pharmacist will be able to fill in some of the gaps in the distribution system, reaching customers who cannot or do not want to visit their doctors for the vaccine.

The COVID Vaccine

Today, multiple COVID-19 vaccines are in the approval process. Health Canada is taking a careful look at the vaccines’ effectiveness and side effects, deciding whether each vaccine is worth distributing to the Canadian public.

The Pfizer vaccine has already been approved for use in Canada. The Moderna vaccine is well on its way to approval. These vaccines have different characteristics and different requirements for their safe distribution. It will be up to Canadian community pharmacists to follow the recommendations of Health Canada and the vaccine manufacturers to get the vaccine to a large portion of the public.

The Process of Vaccine Approval

Today, COVID-19 vaccines are being approved at a faster pace than vaccines in the past. This is due to the uniquely acute situation that the vaccine has created for the healthcare system. The vaccine needs to be distributed as quickly as possible without compromising patient safety or public health.

Typically, the vaccine approval process as set out by Health Canada requires that the manufacturers complete their clinical trials and enter a complex system of sharing information about the medication.

Today, the COVID vaccines are undergoing “rolling approval,” where the manufacturers have the opportunity to submit supplemental documentation throughout the process. This has effectively sped up the process. Some Canadian residents are skeptical about the increased pace of vaccine approval, but they should be reassured that the vaccines are safe and effective.

Special Requirements for Distribution

The COVID-19 vaccination manufactured by Pfizer has a particularly strict set of requirements for its storage and distribution. This may have the effect of making it more difficult for community pharmacies to store and give the vaccine, since specialty refrigeration requirements can hold the vaccine between -80 degrees Celsius and -60 degrees Celsius.

The vaccines must also be prevented from dropping or shaking since too much movement could cause the active ingredients to degrade. Transportation of these vaccines must be extremely regulated and cautious.

Relying on Community Pharmacies

All licensed pharmacists are allowed to give vaccinations under Canadian law. 42,000 Canadian pharmacists are ready to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. As for community pharmacies, there are 11,000 neighborhood stores available to meet the demand for vaccines as well as other forms of treatment for COVID-19.

Most of the population of Canada lives within 5 kilometres of their community pharmacy. This means that the pharmacy is most likely the most convenient location to receive the vaccine.

Neighborhood pharmacies are working with Health Canada to make sure that they can safely distribute the vaccine. Health Canada will help these pharmacies manage their vaccine distribution and logistics requirements.

The Canadian Pharmacists Association is lobbying for a more structured rollout of the vaccine to pharmacies around the country. Governments need to provide direction about how the doses will be prioritized and when the vaccine will be available to these pharmacists.

According to a national survey, 1 in 3 Canadians wishes to receive the vaccine as soon as possible. Up to 48 percent prefer to wait until the vaccine has been in use for some time.

43 percent of all Canadians will prefer to receive the COVID vaccine at their local pharmacy. This is the leading location for vaccine preference, coming in at a higher percentage than physicians’ offices or public health clinics.

Fighting the Pandemic Together

Andrew Hanna believes that the Canadian public can only beat COVID-19 if community pharmacists form an important part of the vaccine distribution process. Understanding how COVID-19 is transmitted and how a vaccine can help to halt its spread is necessary before making any medical decisions for the community as a whole.

People must not let their guard down prematurely. The vaccine will help to end the disease, but people must continue to take precautions. Mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand-washing remain the community’s first lines of defence against the disease since the vaccine will roll out slowly to the Canadian public and many people will not receive their vaccinations until mid-2020.

The public must be assured that the COVID-19 vaccines produced by various pharmaceutical companies are safe and effective. Pharmacists can help to reassure patients about their fears and misgivings and provide a higher rate of vaccination for the Canadian public.