VANCOUVER -- At a time when every medically trained person in the province is being called on to help with record hospitalizations and a plethora of critical roles during the pandemic, B.C.’s pharmacists find themselves largely on the sidelines.

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged the supply of AstraZeneca vaccine has either already been – or will imminently be – used up by pharmacies. Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada says it has no timetable on when more AstraZeneca will arrive. As a result, B.C. pharmacies are no longer part of the vaccine rollout for the time being.

“We absolutely have a network, a distribution system available and why we’re not using that and instead labouring more onto our health-care professionals at this time, I think, is really ill thought out,” said opposition health critic Renee Merrifield.

Henry acknowledged the depletion of AstraZeneca doses on the same day Health Minister Adrian Dix announced 1,750 surgeries would be cancelled over the next two weeks as surgical personnel are resassigned to staff surge capacity beds for COVID-19 patients. Metro Vancouver’s busiest hospitals are at capacity, and yet doctors and nurses are still predominantly the staff administering shots at provincial vaccination clinics.

“I know that right now health-care professionals are stretched,” said Merrified. “They are taxed beyond what they should be and I don’t understand why we’re asking them to yet again rise to a different challenge, when we have pharmacists available across B.C.”

Behind other provinces in vaccine access

Currently, AstraZeneca is the only vaccine Henry has authorized for use in B.C. pharmacies.

Alberta, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick allow Pfizer and Moderna vaccines through pharmacies, in addition to AstraZeneca. Quebec has Moderna and AstraZeneca on offer, and Saskatchewan is starting a pilot project to add Pfizer to its AstraZeneca.

Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island follow the same plan as British Columbia. Only Newfoundland doesn’t use pharmacies as part of its vaccine rollout. The United States has been using Pfizer and Moderna at pharmacies during its highly successful vaccine rollout.

Originally, the limitations on where vaccines could be distributed were based on the ultra-cold temperatures at which the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be stored. But last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control accepted Pfizer’s instructions authorizing the vaccine’s storage at fridge temperatures for up to five days. Moderna can last for even longer, opening up the possibility for a much broader distribution network.

CTV News asked the Ministry of Health if it had any plans to expand pharmacies’ access to vaccines and authorize them to dispense Moderna and Pfizer as other provinces do. They said those vaccines are being used through other vaccination streams, primarily provincially run clinics, as well as public health interventions at COVID hotspots and workplace outbreaks.

Canada is about to be inundated with Pfizer vaccine, more than making up for a slowdown in Moderna supplies and offsetting the possibility there will be little to no AstraZeneca, which Canada has been receiving from COVID-ravaged India and a troubled plant in the United States.

The federal government inked a deal to double the supply of Pfizer doses in the next two months and experts are already raising the possibility those who had AstraZeneca for their first dose could have Pfizer for their second, booster shot.

Which pharmacies get vaccine at all?

As pharmacists wait to re-engage with the vaccine effort, one of them is speaking up about the distribution of vaccine doses, pointing out some are left out altogether.

“The vaccine distribution so far has been very patchy and very uneven,” said Jason Cridge of Cridge Pharmacy in Victoria. “Entire geographies have been left out. We have stories in Victoria where some stores have received 1,000 vaccines and others no vaccines. There’s no real rhyme or reason as to why that’s happened.”

That’s leading to frustration among the thousands of people aged 40 and over who suddenly found themselves eligible and scrambling to find a pharmacy with available doses. Dozens of people have expressed frustration to CTV News that they’re on multiple wait lists.

“I’m on six or seven wait lists,” said Vancouver resident Jason Motz. “It’s exhausting. It’s frustrating, like everything else about COVID.”

Motz is frustrated that the government continues to encourage people to get a vaccine when there are no longer any available.

“I can handle the supply issues,” he said. “I get that … But they’re making it sound like there’s a buffet of options when we know there isn’t. I don’t know why B.C. isn’t special enough to get an array of vaccines.”

He went to a pharmacy on Commercial Drive, only to be told the store didn’t receive any AstraZeneca at all, despite being willing to dispense it.

CTV News asked the BC Pharmacy Association to explain how it decided which members to allocate AstraZeneca doses, but the association did not respond to the request. 

“These vaccines, they’re the property of British Columbians,” said Cridge. “I think with that, there’s a lot of accountability and a lot of responsibility and the need for transparency and unfortunately we just haven’t seen that transparency at any level.”