Rural vaccine rollout will need to be prioritized

Moderna could be the only vaccine option for parts of rural and Northern Ontario

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Rural and northern areas of Ontario will likely not see a vaccine rollout until the early part of 2021, and then the limited numbers will mean prioritization.

The Moderna vaccine, which doesn’t require the same stringent ultra-cold storage protocols as its Pfizer-BioNTech counterpart, is ideal for distribution in rural, northern and remote areas.

The question is when?

Why it matters: People are eager for the stability a vaccine can bring to the growth of COVID-19, but many in rural Ontario will have to be patient.

Vaccine rollout information evolves daily, sometimes hourly, as all levels of government work on a distribution system where citizens can access the vaccine in a timely, risk-prioritized fashion now that Moderna has been green-lit by Health Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 168,000 of the four million Moderna doses ordered should be in stock by the end of December, with the initial doses made available within 48 hours of Health Canada’s approval.

Regardless of when the vaccine is made available, Allan Thompson, chair of Rural Ontario Municipal Association and Mayor of Caledon, said rural areas will have to prioritize who gets the vaccines, much like their urban counterparts.

“I do think it needs to be a pecking order on who is the most vulnerable,” Thompson said, adding health care workers, emergency first responders, the elderly and those at risk along with essential retail workers should top the list.

“The priority is, obviously, the health system and… long-term care,” said Keith Currie, Canadian Federation of Agriculture vice-president. “But food production is going to be right up there, right next to it.”

The first wave made it abundantly clear how important the food supply chain is and how COVID-19 outbreaks within the processing sector can have a tremendous impact from the farmer to the consumer.

He pointed to the recent closure of the Cargill Meat Solutions processing plant in Guelph, which is a large player in processing capacity in Eastern Canada. Currie said unless they are able to get the outbreak under control the impact could be substantial.

“They were a big part of Eastern Canada’s processing capacity for beef in particular and we’re grossly underserved in Eastern Canada, to begin with,” he said. “The fact that they are shut down for 10 days, two weeks – it’s going to be potentially impactful long-term.”

Transporters also key to food system

Whether it’s maintaining feed supplies, fuel sources such as propane and oil, delivering produce to retailers or hauling produce from the farmers – transportation is a key cog in the food supply system and needs to be considered a priority, said Currie.

The greenhouse sector alone can produce the raw product for the food supply system but it means nothing if it can’t be transported, packaged, delivered to retailers and made accessible to consumers.

“You don’t think about those auxiliary businesses that keep us going,” Currie said. “There’s all those spinoff businesses related to agriculture that are vital to keeping our farm businesses rolling.”

Currie said during a lockdown situation or even when evaluating how essential a worker is and where they sit on the vaccine priority list is something no one wants to do, however food production is necessary for the health and wellness of every Canadian citizen. It is literally essential for human survival.

“When we’re trying to get a handle on a worldwide pandemic, that’s really been spiking in the last month…people are still going to eat,” he said. “We need to make sure that food production is going to be there too.”

Even while attempts will be made to ensure those working within the food supply chain are protected, there may be subtle influences on who gets prioritized which might not be immediately obvious to the casual observer and cause some strife, said Thompson.

“It’s very complex on how this is going to be,” he said. “Farmer A may get (the vaccine) because they’re a volunteer firefighter before Farmer B, who’s the same age and same demographic.”

Thompson hopes as more people get vaccinated the risk of infection will drop as long as safety protocols are maintained and he urges patience while communities iron out the distribution.

In days leading up to Christmas, Thompson said his time has been consumed with discussions around the province-wide lockdown and its impact on rural communities. He said, much like the first-wave lockdown, agriculture and the supply chain are crucial and will remain an essential service much like health care.

“If you’re a food producer, you’re essential,” said Thompson, “(And) anybody who supplies that supply chain is essential.”

About the author

Reporter

Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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