Canada on Monday joined Britain and the United States as the first Western nations to start inoculating their citizens against the coronavirus.
Fourteen distribution centers across the country began receiving doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which was made in Belgium, on Sunday night. Among the first to get injections will be residents of nursing homes in Quebec and health care workers at long-term care homes in Toronto.
“This is good news,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter Sunday. “But our fight against Covid-19 is not over. Now more than ever, let’s keep up our vigilance.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 460,000 people in Canada and killed 13,431, underlining how even a country with universal health care, a generally rule-bound population and a deference to science remains vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Here’s what you need to know.
Which Canadians go first?
Anita Quidangen, a long-term care health worker in Toronto, was one of the first people to receive the vaccine in Canada. She got it shortly after 12 p.m. on Monday, kicking off the start of her country’s inoculation campaign.
Who gets the shots first will vary from province to province. For the first few thousand doses, for example, Quebec will focus on long-term-care homes, while Saskatchewan and Alberta will first inject health care workers.
In Quebec, the province hardest hit by the pandemic, the first person to be vaccinated in Quebec City, the provincial capital, was to be Gisele Levesque, an 89-year-old former bank employee. “They chose me — oh, yes!” she said upon hearing the news, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Residents of two Quebec nursing homes will be among the first to be vaccinated. In Ontario, which has been badly buffeted by the virus, frontline health workers will get vaccinated, including at The Ottawa Hospital and at the University Health Network in Toronto.
A federal panel came up with a list of recommendations that prioritized people over the age of 80; residents of long-term-care homes, a group that has accounted for 71 percent of deaths to date in the country, and the workers who serve them; health care workers; and Indigenous communities.
Children will not get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine immediately. It is approved only for use in people 16 and older.
And the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon won’t be immediately vaccinating. Instead, they have opted to wait for the Moderna vaccine, which is nearing approval and will be easier to distribute, since it doesn’t require the ultralow temperatures necessary to transport and store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
How many doses will Canada be getting?
Maj. Gen. Dany Fortin, the Canadian military officer overseeing the distribution of the vaccine to provincial health care systems, told the CBC, the national broadcaster, that the first batch would be roughly 30,000 doses. Officials said that number would grow to about 249,000 doses by the end of the month.
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. The coronavirus vaccines are injected deep into the muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be enough protection to keep the vaccinated person from getting ill. But what’s not clear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose — and be sneezed or breathed out to infect others — even as antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. The vaccine clinical trials were designed to determine whether vaccinated people are protected from illness — not to find out whether they could still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of flu vaccine and even patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to be hopeful that vaccinated people won’t spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone — even vaccinated people — will need to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and keep wearing a mask. Read more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t feel different than any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects does appear higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. The side effects, which can resemble the symptoms of Covid-19, last about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Early reports from vaccine trials suggest some people might need to take a day off from work because they feel lousy after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25 to 33 percent of patients, sometimes more, including headaches, chills and muscle pain. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is mounting a potent response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
Canada, which has a population of 38 million, has agreed to buy up to 76 million doses from Pfizer, and 414 million doses of other potential vaccines from other companies in a rollout that will take months. Similarly, Britain has arranged for far more doses than it will need, in case some vaccines are delayed or do not pan out.
The initial quantities will be small compared with the millions of doses expected to arrive in the new year, making the first doses more an appetizer than a main course.
The broad plan is to vaccinate only people from the top-priority groups until the end of March. During that time, the federal government expects to receive four million doses from Pfizer and, assuming it’s approved, two million doses of Moderna’s vaccine.
By that time, governments will have to figure out how to deal with the remaining 35 million Canadians.
Officials said Canada is among the countries ordering the most doses per capita, opening the way for the country to provide excess supply to less wealthy countries.
Is it safe? Are there side effects?
Health Canada says it has completed a rigorous, independent review of the data from clinical trials on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, which involved tens of thousands of people — the same kind of scrutiny applied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, like other typical vaccines, is delivered as a shot in the arm. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious side effects.
The vaccine requires two doses, with the second delivered 21 days after the first. Recipients are not fully protected until 28 days after the first shot is administered.
Some recipients of the vaccine have experienced some short-lived discomfort, including aches and flulike symptoms that lasted less than a day. It may be necessary for some people to take time off from work or school after the second shot.
While the effects of the vaccine may provide some initial irritation, they are a positive sign that the body’s immune system is kicking into gear to provide long-lasting immunity.
Following the news that two people in Britain experienced severe allergic reactions to the vaccine, Health Canada over the weekend warned people with allergies to any of the ingredients in the vaccine not to receive it.
When can people return to normal life?
Since only a small number of citizens can be vaccinated in the first few months of the campaign, the unvaccinated majority will still be vulnerable to the virus.
A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against Covid-19. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected if they have only mild symptoms — or none at all. And scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus.
So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to remain vigilant.
Once enough people are vaccinated, however, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly that goal is achieved, there could be a return to normalcy by the fall of 2021.
I’ve been vaccinated — do I still need to wear a mask?
Yes, but not forever.
Vaccines can protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that established that were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus.
Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.