A million vaccines in freezers: Ontario defends ‘buffer’ as thousands of appointments cancelled

Madiha Khan’s mother was looking forward to getting vaccinated against COVID-19. She woke up Wednesday morning, excited to feel safer in her job working in education with kids with special needs, who can’t wear masks.

Then, Khan saw a headline while watching the morning news: 10,000 vaccine appointments had been cancelled — including her mother’s.

Read more: Scarborough hospital forced to cancel 10,000 appointments from lack of COVID-19 vaccine supply

Khan’s mother was just one of thousands of people who were caught up in the latest snag in Ontario’s vaccine rollout. And while Ontario blamed the cancellations on delivery delays that hit Moderna vaccine shipments in late March, many Ontarians — including Khan — wondered about the million doses sitting in Ontario’s freezers.

“What’s really frustrating is you keep reading the news where it says we have (1) million vaccines in freezers and our education workers are not vaccinated,” Khan said.

“She’ll be going back to school with no vaccination and no indication of when this can happen for her.”

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Trudeau defends his government’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout following comparison to U.S.

When questioned about the unused doses sitting in freezers, a senior source in the Ontario government told Global News on background that they have to keep a certain number of vaccines handy to ensure everyone gets their dose — a sort of “buffer.”

“This is to ensure that appointments do not need to be cancelled or rescheduled,” said the source in a statement on April 6.

However, amid repeated follow-ups, the Ontario government would not confirm how many doses are needed to provide the buffer, nor would they provide a range.

“It is a few days’ worth of supply. It varies between PHUs based on their local capacity and and ability to administer vaccines,” wrote the source.

Ontario currently has 1,083,521 doses sitting in its freezers, according to COVID-19 Tracker Canada. The Ontario government’s website says the province had been administering about 112,000 doses daily, meaning they have about 10 days’ worth of vaccines currently in their freezers.

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That number is more than a buffer, according to one doctor.

“There will be some vaccines in freezers over the course of a week,” said Dr. Lisa Salamon, an emergency room physician with the Scarborough Health Network.

“However, there seems to be a lot more vaccines sitting in freezers that aren’t going anywhere or that we don’t have accounted.”

She added that her clinic has the capacity to be administering more vaccines.

“Where I work, we’re only giving 50 per cent of the capacity that we have. We could do a lot more if we were given the vaccine immediately,” Salamon explained.

“I do believe that the infrastructure is there to be able to give these doses, and I think we really need to have an understanding of where those vaccines are.”

Amid repeated emails from Global News, the Ontario government refused to provide any firm number that clarifies how many vaccines it needs to hold onto at any given time. To date, Ontario has administered a total of 3.4 million doses over the entirety of the rollout.

And right now, 1.3 million doses are sitting in freezers.

Click to play video: 'Growing number of COVID-19 vaccines sitting in freezers' 2:35 Growing number of COVID-19 vaccines sitting in freezers

Growing number of COVID-19 vaccines sitting in freezers

Salamon wasn’t the only expert who suggested the number of vaccines sitting in freezers went beyond the necessary buffer.

“I don’t see a tremendous need for a lot of buffering right now, because the recommendations of NACI that have been accepted by, ostensibly, all of the provinces is that we’re not holding on to second doses,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, assistant dean at McMaster University’s department of biochemistry and biomedical sciences.

“There’s no question that the logistics of a vaccine rollout on this scale are complicated, but we’ve had had a lot of time to think about and plan for this.”

Read more: Ontario releases more details on COVID vaccinations for adults 18+ in hot spot neighbourhoods

And as doctors wait for clarity on what’s happening with the 1 million doses sitting in freezers, people like Khan’s mother are facing the reality of cancelled appointments.

Khan’s mother has already caught COVID-19 once. It took her weeks to recover. Now, she has no idea when her vaccine appointment will take place, and she finds herself facing the prospect of eventually re-entering a classroom full of maskless children who have special needs — with no vaccine.

“It is terrifying, because I know what COVID feels like. She’s been through COVID. It took four to six weeks to recover, and it was tough…if she’s exposed and gets it again, I don’t know what that means for her health,” Khan said.

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Ontario Premier Ford defends vaccine rollout, says it’s simple to book appointment

Khan wasn’t alone in her frustrations.

“Frustrated, angry — one word: pissed,” said one woman who spoke with Global News from her car after learning her appointment was cancelled.

“The numbers are going up, you want us to be vaccinated, and you’re running out of vaccine everywhere you go. It don’t make sense.”

Another man outside the clinic told Global News he had booked his appointment three weeks ago, only to learn it had been cancelled.

“(I’m) frustrated. You go home, you stay alone, and you can’t go out,” he said.

And as he waits for his appointment, he wonders what’s next.

“(Am I) going to get sick and die?”

— With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman and Caryn Lieberman

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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