Canada has tapped former NATO commander Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin to lead the national vaccine distribution effort, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced his target of immunizing more than half of all Canadians by September, 2021.
“Canadians can expect that if all goes well, to have more than half of us vaccinated by next September,” said the prime minister, adding this “significant positive news” comes straight from Canada’s federal health experts.
“I can understand the eagerness with which people want to know, ‘When is this going to be over? When are we going to get the vaccines?’ What we can say is, we are working extremely hard to deliver as quickly and as safely as possible… if all goes according to plan, we should be able to have the majority of Canadians vaccinated by next September,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau also spoke more about the government’s vaccine strategy of procuring up to 414 million doses from seven different pharmaceutical companies — enough to vaccinate every person in this country more than a few times over. Because COVID-19 is a new disease and there are different approaches to tackling it, Canada wanted to keep its options open, he said.
“Some are going to work better than others, and some are going to be speed bumps along the way that cause extra challenges, and we knew that creating an array of opportunities for Canadians was one of the best ways of making sure that we would get through this the best possible way,” Trudeau said.
Asked what the biggest question on his mind is ahead of administering the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to a Canadian, Trudeau said it’s concerning safety.
“I think the question we all have is: is it going to be safe? Is it going to be effective? That's what our scientists are looking at very, very carefully right now… There are jurisdictions and countries around the world that have banked everything on one or maybe two different vaccines… Whatever vaccines end up being the right ones to get through this pandemic, Canadians have a very good chance of having access to millions of doses of those,” Trudeau said.
In an interview on CTV News Channel, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that it was time to tap Fortin, because the planning has evolved to a point where it was time to “really start drilling down.”
“You can understand the complexity of when you have multiple vaccines, different requirements as they are being approved,” Sajjan said, offering examples of the potential for winter weather challenges and the possibility for Canadian military aircraft to be needed to transport doses to some regions.
“There's a lot of complexity to this, but the plan is being worked and one thing I can assure Canadians: the right people are on this job. We’ll have a plan for this, we've done extremely well in the past, and I'm confident that not only will we have that plan but we'll be ready to go when the vaccines arrive for a quick rollout,” Sajjan said.
Health Canada will need to evaluate each candidate before it can be administered to Canadians, and on Thursday that agency’s chief medical adviser said that the first COVID-19 vaccine approval could happen before Christmas, in line with expected approvals in the U.S. and Europe.
“We are expecting to make a final decision on the vaccines around the same time,” Dr. Supriya Sharma told reporters Thursday, during the first of what will be weekly public briefings on the status of procurement and rollout plans.
This means Canada could see first approvals in December, initial prioritized groups vaccinated between January and March, and expanding out to more Canadians over the following months.
“And then we’re going to have to figure out all of those shipments,” she said.
That’s when the military is expected to play a role.
TOP MILITARY GENERAL TAKES LEAD
As first reported by CTV News ahead of Trudeau’s Rideau Cottage address on Friday, Fortin will be in charge of overseeing what is set to be a massive logistics-heavy operation of delivering the vaccine.
Trudeau called it the “greatest mobilization effort Canada has seen since the Second World War.”
There are already Canadian Armed Forces military logistics teams working with the Public Health Agency of Canada on planning for the rollout of vaccines to millions of Canadians in the coming months. This work has quietly been underway for months but with positive vaccine trial news coming out in recent weeks, the country’s attention has been largely seized with assessing where Canada stands.
According to the military, there are currently 27 staff working out of the national public health agency, including operational planners, pharmacists, health-care administrators, engineers, and IT experts, with more expected to follow.
Known as the National Operations Centre, Fortin will head up the logistics and operations within the centre. He is being named Vice President Logistics and Operations at PHAC, and will be assisted by Brig.-Gen. Simon Bernard and Brig.-Gen. Krista Brodie with logistical planning and co-ordination.
“This will be the biggest immunization in the history of the country,” Trudeau said. “We must reach everyone who wants a vaccine, no matter where they live.”
Fortin most recently served as the Chief of Staff for the Canadian Joint Operations Command, but has also served as the commander of NATO’s Iraq mission between 2018-19. He graduated from the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in 1991, and has also spent time working for the U.S. Army and with the United Nations in Bosnia.
“The Canadian Armed Forces will assist on planning, including to meet challenges like cold storage requirements, data-sharing, and reaching Indigenous and rural communities,” Trudeau said.
Further complicating the tall task of distributing millions of vials across the country, a number of the vaccine candidates being tested—including the Pfizer vaccine— require two doses and must be stored at very cold temperatures.
The government has begun procuring freezers that are able to stay cold enough to keep the vaccine supply stable, and the procurement process is underway for a contract tender to ship, fly, and drive doses to all regions of the country.
The military says it is helping “synchronize” vaccine deliveries, put in place “risk-mitigation tools” and conduct “a series of exercises” ahead of vaccines being administered.
Right now the military isn’t set to play a role in actually administering needles to the public, but Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said if the provinces indicate they need assistance, it could be considered.
The prime minister spoke with provinces again Thursday evening about the COVID-19 response and said the federal government is offering the latest information it can, after frustration and confusion about timelines and plans bubbled over this week.
“We have continued to work with the provinces on vaccine delivery logistics, since last spring. We've been engaged, understanding that a vaccine was the way we were going to get through this pandemic,” Trudeau said.
In the wake of Fortin’s new role, the federal government has faced criticism for not naming him sooner. Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump tapped a four-star Army Gen. Gustave F. Perna to be the chief operations officer for that country’s “Operation Warp Speed” in May.
Sajjan defended the timing on Friday, saying that the military has been working on Canada’s COVID-19 response since “day one” through Operation Laser.
In a statement to CTV News, Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said that she wishes Fortin luck “in deploying a vaccine we won't receive for months,” pointing also to the Trump administration timeline and accusing Canada of being months behind with “dire” consequences.
'TOUGHEST DAYS OF THIS PANDEMIC'
Noting that Ontario hit a new record for the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported in a single day on Friday, and Canadians from coast to coast are adjusting to new levels of restrictions in the face of the second wave, Trudeau said that Canada is in “some of the toughest days of this pandemic.” Trudeau restated that as the country waits for vaccines, the standard public health measures still need to be taken.
As Tam reported on Friday, Canada is now averaging 5,300 new daily cases a day, with continued “rapid growth,” in many parts of the country. She said Canada is on track to double the new daily case counts within a week or two if Canadians don’t limit their outings and interactions to those that are essential.
“We’re in this together, and the more we work as a team, the better we’ll all do," said the prime minister on Friday.
With files from CTV News' Michel Boyer and Solarina Ho