Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force is waiting on Ottawa: provincial health minister

Manitoba’s health minister says a team of public servants, minus the province’s top doctor, has been enlisted to get a COVID-19 vaccine into the arms of as many people as possible.

But Cameron Friesen said the provincial task force is restrained by circumstances beyond their control.

“There is only so much advanced planning that we can do until we are in need of the detail that only the federal government can provide,” Friesen told reporters Wednesday.

As the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines is slated to arrive by early 2021, Manitoba insists its task force devoted to the coveted shot in the arm is doing everything possible, before then. 

The province said the task force is preparing for the needs of each vaccine candidate, such as freezer capacity, by identifying the resources Manitoba already has and those it still requires.

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the province has a task force equipped to ensure a smooth rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The group is speaking with key stakeholders, participating on national vaccine committees and ensuring the province has the means of tracking new vaccines from inventory to uptake, the government said in an email. 

The task force will also make decisions on vaccine priority groups, as well as the logistics of receiving, storing and distributing it.

“This work involves significant risks, it involves significant contingency planning,” Friesen said.

“But those things, we will be ready for. We need the federal government, though, to say what’s happening.”

Friesen went on to cite the United States’ COVID-19 task force, named Operation Warp Speed, and implied that Canada’s effort might be lagging behind.

“It seems that we have a slow-lane approach to vaccine, at least expressed thus far from the federal government,” Friesen said.

Ottawa has deals in place to buy the vaccine and distribute them to provinces and territories, but Friesen said over the past week that Manitoba doesn’t know much in terms of vaccine, distribution and storage planning. 

He said a phone call Tuesday involving his federal counterpart, Patty Hajdu, didn’t alleviate his concerns.

Premier Brian Pallister told a national audience on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live Sunday that Manitoba needs national criteria to ensure fairness in distributing a vaccine. He added that vulnerable people and health-care workers are expected to be first in line.

WATCH | Manitoba’s premier says vaccine rollout should be equitable:

Brian Pallister cautions against ‘piecemeal’ plans for access to COVID-19 vaccines and wants a standard in place across all provinces and territories. 1:28

The province said in an email Wednesday that Manitoba has received an estimate on the number of available vaccine doses from the federal government, but would not reveal what that number is. 

Other provinces, including Saskatchewan and Ontario, have revealed an estimated dosage.

Manitoba’s task force will be comprised of staff from various government departments, including Health, Seniors and Active Living, Finance, and Central Services.

Dr. Brent Roussin will not be at the table, Friesen confirmed.

“Our chief provincial public health officer is very busy with his assigned duties, so therefore, we cannot task him also with this,” Friesen said, “but we have expertise here. We have taken a whole-of-government approach.”

The NDP’s health critic said Roussin’s voice shouldn’t be missing from the table.

“I was surprised to hear that Dr. Roussin wouldn’t be taking the lead in terms of what the vaccine’s going to look like once it reaches Manitoba and how that those decisions are going to be made,” Uzoma Asagwara said.

They added that the province should focus less on blaming Ottawa and more on preparing.

“We know it ends up with us being in a position to react instead of being proactive,” Asagwara said. 

“Where they’ve made many mistakes during this pandemic,” Asagwara said of the government, “this is an opportunity to get it right.”

Doctors Manitoba wants to be consulted

Doctors Manitoba, which represents physicians in the province, has yet to be consulted by provincial officials on vaccine rollout. President Dr. Cory Baillie hopes that will change.

“At this point, we’d like to ensure that physicians are involved in deciding who receives the vaccine first and ensure that physicians are involved in giving the vaccine,” he said.

“We know that physicians have built up trust with their patients and we think building on that trust is going to be very important in order to ensure maximum uptake in the population of the coronavirus vaccine.”

Friesen has previously said the vaccine distribution plan will be guided, in part, by the annual flu vaccination campaign, with some notable distinctions.

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