OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the military could play an integral part in rolling out COVID-19 vaccines across the country, though question marks remain around cost and distribution.
As case counts continue to climb at an alarming pace, the Canadian Armed Forces are already helping the Public Health Agency of Canada hammer out a support plan for vaccine rollout and set up a national operation centre to oversee broader delivery.
“Obviously, getting those vaccines from an airport tarmac or a port to Canadians right across the country is a significant logistical challenge,” Trudeau said Tuesday in Ottawa.
“That will involve multiple government agencies, possibly private contracts as well. It may well involve the Canadian Armed Forces.”
The remarks line up with those from Maj.-Gen. Trevor Cadieu, who heads the military’s strategic joint staff. He told the House of Commons national defence committee Monday the Forces “expect a potential request” for assistance with vaccine distribution.
Uncertainty remains around other logistical details.
“It’s a bit of a moving target,” Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer, said Tuesday of the number of doses bound for Canadian shores.
Shipments will arrive in batches, he said with the first landing “hopefully sometime early in the new year. That could lead to a majority of Canadians being vaccinated by the end of 2021, Njoo added, with the qualifier that ”there will be adjustments.“
Storage and administration costs are other unknowns.
The Pfizer vaccine candidate, whose early results from the trial stage yielded a 90 per cent efficacy rate, needs “pretty sophisticated storage” at temperatures of -70 C, said Timothy Sly, professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health.
“And that’s not available unless you go through a big industrial freezer,” he said.
“The logistics are going to be enormous. In one country we’re looking at millions (of doses); globally we’re looking at billions.”
The government is arranging contracts to expand refrigeration capacity and hold 33.5 million vaccine doses, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said last week.
Anticipation around vaccines continues to grow as case counts tick upward and hospitalizations increase west of the Maritimes.
Total cases hit 306,467 across the country, according to numbers reported as of Tuesday afternoon, more than half of those cases having come in the past four months. The death toll now stands at 11,086, according to figures from provincial health authorities.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam highlighted “promising” early results from two vaccine trials by Pfizer and Moderna. But Trudeau stressed the country remains in an “incredibly serious” situation where Canadians will need to refocus their efforts until vaccines become widely available.
“We still have to get through the next month and the month after that before vaccines arrive,” he said.
The number of patients with severe illness due to COVID-19 is surging, while those over 80 years old have the highest incidence rate, Tam said.
Public health authorities are warning of a steep rise in demand for hospital beds and intensive-care treatment in the days ahead based on recent record-breaking case numbers.
Asked about possible military-run field hospitals down the line, Tam said that “we do have those kinds of capacities, but it’s not limitless, and we should not get there.”