A Fraser Health physician leader, Dr. Dayan Muthayan, circulated an internal memo to doctors and other healthcare professionals recently, asking for their help as COVID-19 immunizers. The plea, right around New Year’s, produced instant results, a good thing since no other health region in B.C. has been as hard hit by COVID-19 as Fraser Health.

The region accounts for two-thirds of all the COVID-19 cases in B.C. since the pandemic began. Of late, the test positivity rate has been hovering around 10%.

Many hundreds of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists answered the call by Muthayan, the executive medical director of Fraser Health. But after only three days and 1,200 vaccinations, the clinic at Royal Columbian Hospital where the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was being distributed to frontline health care workers was shut down. One of the doctors – Dr. Kathleen Ross, the former president of Doctors of B.C. – vented her frustrations on Twitter:

I asked Ross the next day for more information and she said she was “politely asked not to engage (with) the media.” Another way to say muzzled.

Throughout the pandemic, doctors have taken to Twitter to share their knowledge, opinions and frustrations. And all too often they’ve been silenced. Some hospital staff like emergency room physicians have been threatened with firing if they speak out.

So it was good to get 15 minutes on the phone with Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health today. She said she was happy to see how many hundreds of physicians and other health care professionals offered to do inoculations. “The response was tremendous. Everyone is stepping up and leaning in.”

She said that while healthcare staff in emergency departments, COVID-19 wards, and intensive care units at four hospitals – Abbotsford, Surrey, Burnaby and Royal Columbian – were the focus of vaccinations from the middle of December through the first week of New Year’s, the priority now is residents and staff in long term care and assisted living residences, especially because there isn’t an abundant supply of the vaccine.

Lee’s Twitter posts are decidedly more positive in tone than those from frustrated frontline health care workers:

A sizeable chunk of healthcare professionals have gotten COVID-19, especially care aides in long-term care facilities who’ve unwittingly transmitted infections to residents, resulting in outbreaks. Yesterday, the B.C. government finally offered more information on those outbreaks in care facilities, unveiling a new system to improve transparency. Two-thirds of the 988 deaths caused by COVID have been among elders in long term care.

Lee said like jurisdictions around the world, B.C. is at a “dire stage and whether we have vaccine or not, we need to maintain our vigilance.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, revealed the priority groups for each stage of vaccinations, including 30,000 health-care workers by the end of February, providing vaccine supplies are constantly refreshed.

“We are constrained by logistics and also by how many vaccines we are receiving, but we’re optimistic, and we are focused intensely on making sure we protect people in long-term care and assisted living as quickly as we possibly can – and of course, protecting those most at risk in our communities,” she said.

B.C. had administered 46,259 COVID-vaccines to date, 65% of the 71,200 doses received so far.

Every province is struggling with vaccine supplies. In Ottawa today, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said she’s been pressing vaccine manufacturers to expedite supplies and deliveries.

“I have spoken with the CEOs of both [vaccine] companies this week already, and I will continue to engage with them, as will my department, to move up doses from Q3 to Q2, from Q2 to Q1,”  said, referring to the quarters of the calendar year.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, the military commander leading vaccine logistics for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Canada is expected to receive four million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech product and two million Moderna shots by the end of March — enough to vaccinate just three million people.

Here’s a detailed memo sent by the Fraser Health communications department, regarding that health region’s plans:

“We are currently in the first stage of the vaccine rollout across Fraser Health, with work well underway to vaccinate staff, medical staff, residents, and essential visitors in long term care and assisted living facilities, people awaiting long term care placement in acute and community settings, and priority acute care staff, medical staff and paramedics. We expect all eligible long term care and assisted living staff, medical staff and residents in the region to receive their first COVID-19 vaccination by mid-January.

Priority acute care health care workers include staff, medical staff and dedicated support services in emergency departments, critical care units, and COVID-19 units. We expect to immunize more than 6,000 of these priority staff and medical staff at acute care sites by January 23.

Dedicated immunization clinics in acute care began with our three regional COVID-19 hospitals – Surrey Memorial, Abbotsford Regional and Royal Columbian Hospitals. Burnaby Hospital also began immunization clinics this week, given the ongoing and significant outbreaks at that site. Remote First Nations communities will begin receiving vaccinations on January 13.

Over the next few weeks, we expect to immunize 12,000 to 15,000 individuals per week, and by February, we expect to be able to immunize up to 30,000 individuals per week.

We are grateful for the tremendous response from our staff and medical staff, as well as community physicians, local pharmacists, and other community partners who have stepped up to help administer the COVID-19 vaccine in our region. To date, nearly 550 medical staff, more than 75 pharmacists and 200 peer immunizers have expressed interest in administering the COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, Fraser Health has hired 60 dedicated immunizers and has redeployed additional staff to support our efforts.

Thanks to the efforts of our vaccine coordination centre and all those who have come forward to support immunizations, we have rapidly expanded our daily capacity from a few hundred to over 2,800 immunized per day as of yesterday. 

Due to the numerous complexities of the vaccine rollout, our vaccine coordination centre teams are working around the clock to rapidly adjust and augment our schedules and strategies. We ask for the patience of those in our priority groups who are awaiting their vaccine as we endeavour to deliver an effective and efficient COVID-19 vaccine program.

Our vaccine coordinating and local Royal Columbian Hospital teams have done an incredible job with onsite vaccine clinics. As they had substantially completed their efforts to vaccinate priority acute care staff, medical staff and dedicated support services staff, a previously scheduled vaccine clinic at Royal Columbian Hospital was redirected to support our efforts to prioritize vaccination of our long term care and assisted living staff, medical staff and essential visitors.

Stage two of the vaccine rollout will begin before the end of January and will include broader groups of staff and medical staff who work in the health system.”