B.C. reveals age-based plan to vaccinate general public by September

B.C. plans to immunize 4.3 million residents by September with a continued age-based approach, vaccinating the high-risk and most elderly populations by April before starting with younger adults in the summer.

The province revealed its vaccine plan in greater detail on Friday, setting out a rough idea of when the population can expect to be vaccinated.

The proposed schedule is split into four phases:

Phase 1, December to February: Residents, staff, essential visitors with long-term care and assisted living; people waiting for long-term care; people in remote Indigenous communities and hospital workers caring for patients with COVID-19.

Phase 2, February to March: Seniors over 80; Indigenous seniors over 65, Indigenous elders; more health-care workers; vulnerable populations and nursing-home staff.

Phase 3, April to June: Members of the general public aged 60 to 79.

Phase 4, July to September: Members of the general public aged 18 to 59.

B.C. is currently in Phase 1.

The plan covers roughly 4.3 million eligible British Columbians before the end of September. The remainder of B.C.’s population — about 900,000 people — is not currently eligible because they’re under 17 and the vaccines in use in Canada have not been approved for children.  

“At every step, our plan puts the health and safety of those most at risk first. Everyone in British Columbia has been affected by the pandemic, but we are not all equally vulnerable to the virus,” said Premier John Horgan. 

The plan hinges on vaccine availability. The current version is based on a steady supply of the two vaccines currently approved in Canada; from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. If those deliveries are delayed, the immunization schedule will be delayed. On the other hand, if a third vaccine is approved, the timeline could speed up.

The province chose the age-based approach based on evidence that increasing age is the “the single greatest risk” factor for severe illness and death from COVID-19. The approach also increases protection for people with pre-existing medical conditions, which become more common as people get older.

People wait in line for their COVID-19 vaccine in Vancouver on Dec. 22, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC News)

The province says people between the ages of 16 and 69 who are deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable” due to certain conditions — like cancer, severe immunodeficiency or serious respiratory conditions — will be eligible for inclusion in Phase 3.

A registration process for most residents will begin in mid-March. People will be able to pre-register two to four weeks before they are eligible to receive their first dose, setting up appointments based on age by phone or online.

No one will lose their place in line if they are not able to be vaccinated during their phase, the province said. For example, if an elderly person included in Phase 2 cannot be immunized in February or March, they can be immunized at any point thereafter.

To date, more than 100,000 people in B.C. have received their first vaccine dose as part of Phase 1. 

The plan is no longer based on a person’s profession, with the exception of health-care staff. That means some front-line workers — like teachers, first-responders and grocery store staff — are no longer getting higher priority because of their job.

Horgan said he’s received a pile of mail “a couple of inches thick” from advocates asking for higher priority for those workers.

“All of the arguments were very compelling … but the science is pretty clear: age is the dominant determinant factor on severe illness and death.”

Both Horgan and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said those people could be vaccinated sooner than scheduled if more vaccines are approved by Health Canada. The schedule could speed up if other vaccines are added to B.C.’s arsenal, including the AstraZeneca vaccine, expected to be greenlit in the spring.

Timeline subject to change

Canada has already seen delays in its deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Shipments over the next four weeks have been been cut in half as a factory expansion at Pfizer’s plant in Belgium slows production of the vaccine.

Timely deliveries are critical as the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both require two doses administered within a certain time frame.

In exchange for the immediate delay, Pfizer expects to be able to ship hundreds of millions more doses worldwide over the rest of 2021.

B.C.’s vaccination schedule will also change as Canada solidifies its schedule for delivering vaccines to the provinces and territories, and while the regional health authorities develop their detailed regional plans.

The province will be establishing vaccination clinics across 172 communities in March. Mobile sites will be used for particularly remote communities.

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