OTTAWA -- The City of Ottawa has begun a pilot project to move doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine outside of the Ottawa Hospital and deliver them directly to long-term care homes.

Residents of the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre are the first in the region to receive the vaccine at their long-term care home. 93-year-old Arnold Roberts received the first dose of the vaccine at the 450-bed facility on Tuesday.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was previously only available at the Ottawa Hospital's clinic at its Civic Campus. Due to the nature of the vaccine requiring ultra-cold storage, only workers from long-term care homes and other priority settings who could travel to the hospital were able to be vaccinated.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Anthony Di Monte, the City of Ottawa's general manager of emergency and protective services, who is leading the local vaccination task force, said the authorization to be able to deliver the vaccine to long-term care homes will accelerate efforts to protect the citizenry.

"This announcement means we are now able to start vaccinating our most vulnerable population: residents in our long-term care and retirement homes," Di Monte said. "We want to ensure that these patients receive this vaccine as quickly as possible."

Akos Hoffer, CEO of the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre, said this is a hopeful sign for the city.

"We are delighted to begin vaccinating our residents and continue to make every effort to protect their health and well-being," Hoffer said in a press release. "And we are proud that so many members of our staff and team of essential caregivers have registered for the vaccine. By supporting one another, we will get through the pandemic."

Hoffer told reporters more than 800 staff members and caregivers at the Perley Rideau have been vaccinated so far.

How it works

The City delivers the vaccines to long-term care homes through use of a mobile team that consists of public health professionals, paramedics, and a pharmacist who prepares the doses on site. Di Monte says the team works in advance with each home to obtain consent to deliver vaccines and to determine when the team will arrive and begin administering the first doses. The team will then return for the second dose at the appropriate time.

"It's a team that leaves in the morning, arrives at a pre-determined institution, goes in and vaccinates every resident and every staff member who hasn't had a chance to go to the Ottawa Hospital. And then, we basically check off the list that that institution is protected and then we come around for the second dose," Di Monte said.

Di Monte added that the logistical plan in place would not put the doses at risk of expiring.

"We have clear processes in place and this has been mapped out ahead of time," he said. "I have no worries with regards to spoilage."

Hoffer said vaccinations are not new to long-term care homes, and he believes that will make the process easier for residents, staff, and the mobile teams.

"Every long-term care home out there would have a process in place for the regular flu vaccine that gets followed every year," he said. "In our case, we've done a lot of communicating with staff to make sure they understand the benefits and the vaccine and, if they're going to refuse it, they give us a reason why so we can help to address their concerns."

Di Monte said the City has been working to establish logistical protocols for the vaccine distribution both in long-term care homes and in the broader community as more doses become available, including having multiple mobile teams to work on several long-term care homes a day.

He says, however, that the number of people who can be immunized each week is based on the availability of doses, which are obtained by the federal government, distributed to the provinces, and then delivered to the city by the provincial government.

"The issue is the amount of vaccine we're receiving in Canada and, ultimately, through that chain locally to Ottawa is far inferior to what we'd like to have, but that's just the reality we have," he said. "With that limit, we are proceeding as we would, based on science and evidence and our priority groups. Our challenge is that I don't have enough product to put in people's arms."

Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said her goal is to have as many long-term care residents immunized as quickly as possible.

"By the end of the month sounds like too long from now. We would certainly be aiming for as fast as possible, in the next week or two," she said.

However, she could immediately confirm how doses would be needed or how many doses are currently available.

On Monday, the Ottawa Hospital said 8,400 people in Ottawa had been vaccinated to date. A memo from Dr. Etches and Mr. Di Monte on Monday indicated that the city had received 12,675 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as of Dec. 31, 2020.

Dr. Etches added that it could take months for the vaccination effort to reflect in Ottawa's COVID-19 case counts, but she is hopeful that, by February, having long-term care and retirement home residents and staff immunized will reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths in the city.

Of the 393 people in Ottawa who have died of COVID-19, 347 were from long-term care or retirement homes, or other congregate health-care settings.