GUELPH – On Jan. 6, the first ever COVID-19 vaccine was administered in the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) region.
The first dose of the Pfizer vaccine was given to Sarah Ricci, a program manager at Shelburne Long-Term Care Home.
“I’m excited to get it,” Ricci said at a media event at public health headquarters in Guelph.
“I’m ready to go and lead the way for everyone else.”
WDGPH received 975 doses of the vaccine the previous day.
Ricci and four other staff at the home received the shot on Wednesday with the remaining doses to be administered to the rest of the staff at the home beginning Thursday.
“This is an exciting day for us. We’re making history,” said Rita Isley, WDGPH’s director of community health as the event got going.
Isley said staff at the Shelburne Long-Term Care Home, “had a rough go of it in the spring. We thought it was important to recognize what they did.”
The Shelburne facility had 20 deaths and dozens of residents and staff tested positive for the virus in the first wave of the pandemic.
Ricci said it was a difficult time and staff had to become flexible and do work they didn’t normally do.
“I worked as a PSW for a week just to help on the floor,” she said. “My family would come and help with the garbage.”
The work was hard, and the times were scary, “but we came together as a team,” Ricci said.
Public health nurse Andrea Bothwell, who administered Ricci’s shot, said there’s been a lot of training to get ready for this day.
The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at -70 degrees and the newly-built public health facility in Guelph has the freezer required.
That is why WDGPH is the first health unit in the province to receive the vaccine.
Bothwell said the vaccine is delicate. It must be thawed at a certain rate and requires special handling while each dose is prepared.
Giving the actual needle is the same as any other inoculation, however.
“It feels so good to be here,” she said. “Now we can do something.”
While pleased to see the roll-out of the vaccine, Dr. Nicola Mercer, medical officer of health, reminded people this is only the beginning of the end and they should not let down their guard.
“Today represents hope. But it is also a sign for patience,” she said.
“The numbers are high across the province and we’re seeing the effect of Christmas.”
Regarding the vaccine, “Be patient and follow the rules. Everyone that wants it will get one.”
Mercer said the people most at risk will get the vaccine first: long-term care residents, health care workers, front-line workers and people with underlying health conditions.
Mercer said more doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected in the coming weeks and next week WDGPH will receive 3,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.
Moderna is more stable in terms of shipping and doesn’t need the special freezers, so public health will bring this vaccine to long-term care homes to administer on-site.
Eventually Moderna could be administered in doctor’s offices and pharmacies.
Mercer said she expects vaccination clinics for the general population could begin by May.
“As the vaccine begins to flow, we have the ability to ramp up significantly,” she said.
But the logistics are complicated.
For example, both vaccines require two doses – Pfizer after 21 days and Moderna after 28 – so those second shots will have to be worked into the cycle.
And while under normal circumstances the health unit would be able to administer 975 doses in a day, COVID protocols require physical distancing and sanitizing – and that adds time.
Weather is also a factor, especially in Wellington and Dufferin counties, and a bad snowstorm could throw off the schedule.
There was confusion earlier in the week about the arrival of the first Pfizer shipment.
WDGPH had announced it would arrive on Jan. 4 and prepared to begin its program on the 5th. But Pfizer had said it would arrive the week of Jan. 4 and didn’t pinpoint an actual date.
“It was a miscommunication,” Mercer said. “But Pfizer really stepped up and the vaccine was delivered yesterday.”
Going forward, “We will have to work with that uncertainty.”
Mercer said for now at least, the COVID-19 vaccination program is in WDGPH’s hands.
“While supplies are short, it will be led by public health,” she said.
“As other vaccines get approved and there is more supply, we’ll see a broader, community approach.”