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'Very little information': Coquitlam area pharmacies remain in the dark over B.C.'s vaccination plan

While pharmacies in Alberta have already begun taking appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine, in B.C. several pharmacies told the Tri-City News they have been given little information on when or how that will happen
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The first Pfizer vaccine doses arrive in B.C. in December. Some larger pharmacies like London Drugs announced they'd purchased ultra-cold freezers in anticipation of a wider vaccine rollout, but when pharmacies will start playing a role is not clear

Coquitlam pharmacist Dennis Taruc knows what it takes to vaccinate crowds. 

Last year, with many family physicians unwilling to administer the flu shot, he saw a surge of patients looking to get jabbed, he said.

“We sort of faced the brunt of it,” said the owner and sole pharmacist at Town Centre Pharmacy. “We weren’t really given any tools to deal with the higher volume. It was a stressful time.”

It’s that kind of experience that places pharmacists in a perfect position to help inoculate the roughly four million British Columbians eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the largest vaccination campaign in B.C.’s history, say both health officials and pharmacists themselves.

But as pharmacies across British Columbian prepare to be integrated into the province’s wider COVID-19 vaccination campaign, many pharmacists like Taruc say they remain in the dark over what role they’ll play. 

Pharmacies in neighbouring Alberta, meanwhile, have already begun offering vaccination appointments to Indigenous people 50 and up, and anyone else aged 65 and older. 

Here in British Columbia, said the Coquitlam pharmacist, “They have given us very little information.” 

B.C. AHEAD OF SCHEDULE

This week, the province announced its vaccination campaign was ahead of schedule, prompting public health officials to declare over 300,000 essential workers would soon start receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine through a program running parallel to the age-based scheme currently targeting seniors. 

By April, vaccinations are expected to open up to the wider population, beginning with people aged 79 to 60 in Phase 3 and working down to British Columbians between 59 and 18 in May and June. 

Every eligible British Columbian who wants a vaccine is expected to receive at least one dose before Canada Day, announced the province Thursday. 

What that will look like on the ground is still not fully clear. The province has said it would role out a variety of vaccination clinics, from mass vaccination sites all the way down to mobile clinics. Indeed, that’s already playing out as public health teams beat back clusters and outbreaks through targeted vaccination campaigns in local prisons, grocery stores and food processing facilities. 

Many pharmacists are not willing to wait and have joined the ranks of midwives, doctors and nurses signing up to volunteer at mass vaccination clinics.

“Everybody is looking to do it,” said the manager of Port Moody’s Newport Village Pharmacy. 

‘PRETTY MUCH READY’

To ramp up vaccination capacity across B.C.’s wider populations, pharmacies will play a significant role.

Mary Ahn, who runs Mary’s Pharmacy off Guilford Way in Coquitlam, said she’s already preparing for the first batch of vaccines as soon as the province makes them available.

“We have all the supplies,” she said. “Once the college and the public health unit says we can participate… We’re pretty much ready.” 

B.C.-based London Drugs — which runs 54 stores in the province and another 28 stretching across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — announced Friday it is preparing to function as an outlet to vaccinate thousands of British Columbians over the coming months. 

A spokesperson for the pharmacy chain said it has bought several ultra-low temperature freezers and containers to safely transport the vaccines from distribution centres to its pharmacies like the one at Coquitlam Centre. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and to a lesser extent the Moderna vaccine, require extremely cold temperatures to avoid spoilage. 

London Drugs has also secured personal protective equipment and is preparing to launch an online booking system for Phase 3 and 4 of the province’s vaccination campaign.

CONCERNS OVER WORKER BURNOUT, BOOKING

Unlike big box pharmacies like London Drugs, Dennis Taruc of Town Centre Pharmacy said independent operators like himself don’t have the money to buy the freezers and the cold storage boxes necessary for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

“I don’t have the budget for a regular freezer,” he said. “It would put these corporate pharmacies at an advantage.” 

Taruc also worries a move to create a variety of booking systems could lead to more confusion for patients looking to get vaccinated. 

He points to reports out of several U.S. states where overburdened pharmacists face gruelling working hours as they try to answer the demand for vaccines all while fulfilling prescriptions to other patients in the community.

“Those guys are being basically hung out to dry,” he said.

But his biggest concern isn’t for small operators like himself who can regulate how many doses of vaccine they receive. 

“I’m not going to take more vaccine than I can handle. My concern would be more if I’m working for a big chain, and we’re expecting big pharmacies to play a big role,” he said. “They’re doing it on top of their regular work.”

“What it’s going to come down to is, what is the expectation and can you manage the influx of patients?” 

—With files from the Canadian Press

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