Alberta pharmacies, worried about wastage, giving COVID-19 vaccines ahead of schedule

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Some Alberta pharmacies are immunizing soon-to-be-eligible Albertans against COVID-19 early amid concerns over vaccine wastage.

A pharmacist at a southeast Calgary Shoppers Drug Mart location told Postmedia Sunday the store was maintaining a waitlist for those eligible for vaccination in Alberta’s Phase 2B, even if their birth year is not yet eligible.

Even younger Albertans, including those as young as 16, can join the waitlist if they have eligible underlying health conditions, the pharmacist said. Albertans can put their name down for excess shots by going to their pharmacist and asking to be added to the list.

Nearly one million Albertans are eligible in Phase 2B of vaccinations, which offers vaccines to those with a wide array of health conditions, including cancer, diabetes or auto-immune diseases. A full list of eligible conditions is available online.

Currently, only Albertans born in 1963 or earlier are eligible to book in Phase 2B through pharmacies, but many younger Albertans are also getting their shots at the sites.

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Loblaws, which owns Shoppers Drug Mart, confirmed the pharmacy was immunizing people not currently eligible in order to avoid vaccine waste.

“The provincial government has a waste mitigation protocol in place to make sure that no dose has, or will be, wasted, which all of our pharmacies adhere to,” said spokesperson Catherine Thomas.

“With all shipments, we work closely with the stores to make sure the allocation at each location is managed per current provincial eligibility criteria and these protocols.”

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at ultra-low temperatures, but can be kept in a refrigerator for five days once it thaws, creating urgency to get shots into arms after pharmacies receive doses.

Alberta Health said the province had directed all pharmacies participating in the vaccine rollout to maintain an on-call list for any remaining doses at the end of each day.

These waiting lists can include a swath of Albertans, but must prioritize people in the same order as the province’s immunization approach.

“The waiting list must prioritize giving expiring vaccines first to people who are already eligible in the current or previous phases,” Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said.

“From there, pharmacies must prioritize individuals eligible in the next birth years of Phase 2B, Phase 2C and, if still no one is available, offer the expiring vaccine to the oldest individual possible.”

There has been no evidence to date of the more than 300 participating pharmacies in Alberta improperly following this approach, McMillan said.

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Duane Bratt is among Calgarians who had an unexpected opportunity to get their jab.

Because he has a chronic medical condition, Bratt is part of Phase 2B for immunizations, but is too young to qualify for a shot currently.

But Saturday afternoon, he received a phone call from the Westhills Shoppers Drug Mart telling him that if he could come to the pharmacy within the next hour, he could receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine. He had not signed up for any waitlist.

“They explained that at my age, combined with my medical condition means I’d be in the next group anyway, and they just wanted to make sure it wasn’t wasted,” he said.

“It was kind of chaotic. There were tons of people showing up for the vaccine, and it was clear that most of the people showing up didn’t have appointments. It was just like I was. They were getting calls.”

The entire experience, from receiving the surprise phone call to returning home, took less than an hour.

Janet Matiisen stopped by her pharmacy, the Shoppers Drug Mart in North Hill mall, on Thursday and asked to be added to their waitlist for surplus supply.

About 90 minutes later, Matiisen received a call from the pharmacy to get her first dose of Pfizer vaccine. Matiisen is also part of Phase 2B but not among currently eligible age groups.

“Better shots in the arms than shots in the garbage,” she said.

Matiisen added several of her friends also received vaccinations through the same process over the past week.
COVID-19 vaccine wastage has been minimal in Alberta to date, the province said.

Between pharmacies and AHS clinics, wastage totals about 0.2 per cent of received doses. In comparison, vaccine wastage in the 2019–20 influenza season hit eight per cent.

The coming week will also see 119,000 more doses of Pfizer vaccine arrive in Alberta.

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