CEO's Message: The first wave of COVID-19 vaccines in pharmacies — a debrief

Updated on July 16, 2021 (Originally posted on May 4, 2021) The Tablet

By any measure the COVID 19 vaccine roll-out in pharmacies was more than a little crazy.

During the lead-up, the BCPhA team had been in conversations with ministry staff for many weeks about how best to bring pharmacies into the province’s vaccine program. Proposals had been shared and discussions were underway—but all of that went out the window on Monday, Mar. 29. That was the day I received a call from Dr. Penny Ballem, the province’s Executive Lead responsible for the vaccine implementation program. She had a request: did I think pharmacists in the Lower Mainland could deliver some 18,000 Astra Zeneca shots by the end of day, Friday, Apr. 2, which happened to be Good Friday?

On the surface, this seems like a crazy request that no one would entertain. British Columbia had not previously had a direct distribution program for publicly funded vaccines to pharmacy, but that was what was proposed. The BC Centre for Disease Control would release vaccines to distributors, who would get the 18,000 shots to pharmacies in the Lower Mainland, and pharmacies would recruit patients to get the shots into arms by end of day on Good Friday.

Yep. It was a pretty crazy ask and was hard to believe for many pharmacists. I have had more than my share of emails and calls suggesting that this couldn’t possibly be true. There were suggestions that somehow we had been huddling with government for weeks and chose to bring in the distributors and pharmacies in at the last minute. While I understand that the timeline seems improbable, I ask any of those reading this column to ask themselves, what was there for the Association to gain by such an approach?

In short: nothing. What I have said previously and what I am saying here is, this is exactly what happened.

The fact is, pharmacists were brought into solve a big public health problem at the last minute. This speaks both to the history of the profession in doing just that and in the confidence that government had in pharmacists to get this job done. 

As most will know, this scenario played out very much like 2009 when immunizing authority was granted to pharmacists. At the time, the province was similarly facing a pandemic and had little idea about how big the problem would become. It was decided that there was an urgent need to increase immunization capacity.

My predecessor, Marnie Mitchell, then-College of Pharmacists Registrar, Marshall Moleschi and Perry Kendall, then-Provincial Health Officer, came together to propose that the capacity of community pharmacists be accessed to help with immunization against the H1N1 virus. While not as quickly as has been the case this time, training was developed and pharmacists were trained to join the fight. That year pharmacists administered 30,000 flu shots. This past season that number exceeded a million. So it is widely accepted that pharmacy can pivot quickly and get the job done.

Similarly, the outcome of that last week in March blitz is that nearly all of those does were used, nearly 18,000 people received what could be a life saving vaccine and the profession took an important step forward in the long-awaited move towards direct distribution of vaccines to pharmacy. It certainly wasn’t easy for anyone involved. But the outcome can not be second guessed. Pharmacists made a difference in people’s lives.

Since that first run to the finish line, additional doses of the vaccine have been made available to pharmacies in the Lower Mainland and elsewhere in the province. My email box has been filled with inquires and many accusations about how the process for selecting pharmacies was unfair, how too few pharmacies were selected.

The Association has done its best to share the details of the roll-out process with all the companies and pharmacists. The process was not unfair, and the Association did not play favourites. A limited supply of vaccine was directed where the government thought it would do the most good.

Were pharmacies and communities left out? Yes. Why? Inventory. Pure and simple, the ability to expand the roll-out in pharmacy was and continues to be governed by the limited amount of vaccine available. B.C. is not unique in facing this shortage of vaccine. It is happening across the country.

Setting aside the chaos and the questions about process, the fact is nearly 180,000 immunizations were given to British Columbians by their pharmacist and in each case, getting the shot could make the difference between life and death.  From my perspective, it is an incredible privilege for all of us at the Association and for pharmacists in some 600 pharmacies to be involved in this once in a lifetime effort.

Be assured that our work continues on expanding the program and in looking ahead to second doses and beyond. It remains our hope and objective to get as many pharmacists involved in this campaign as possible.

Geraldine Vance
Chief Executive Officer
BC Pharmacy Association

This article is featured in The Tablet. The Tablet features pharmacy and industry news, profiles on B.C. pharmacists, information on research developments and new products.