Ideology undermining private-sector help in vaccination rollout

When we touched base a few days ago, Ray Christopherson was waiting on a call he knows may never come.

His company, Travel Medicine and Vaccination Centre (TMVC), has 16 clinics across the province and ought to be at the front lines to make the province safe from the coronavirus. For three decades TMVC has helped British Columbians safely venture abroad with protective jabs for foreign maladies and visited local companies to provide flu shots. Millions of them.

As we’re finding, the province’s vaccination rollout has been an eyeroll. Shipments are going to stack up in fridges instead of in our bodies. It is a circus of discombobulation, as caseloads rise and variants course, and the historic arrival of vaccines has hit B.C. officials like a surprise party when they were expecting a quiet night.

As the supply is spruced, the swarm of curatives descending upon us is a rapidly emerging public administration embarrassment.

One would think one of the first calls to place when the vaccines were coming would come Christopherson’s way. He knows how to administer. He has teams of nurses ready to go. He even has a capable software system for booking, tracking and documenting – which the province has lacked for months and will only unfurl on its own this week.

But, you see, here’s the catch: TMVC is a private provider. The phone isn’t ringing.

Companies and individuals pay willingly for its services, as the film and television businesses are now for incessant COVID testing to keep their productions running. Only about 1% of its revenue comes from billings to the province’s Medical Services Plan (MSP).

Which, in political terms, makes TMVC an antagonist of the state.

While it probably grated on the John Horgan government to have to turn to private pharmacies last week when a glut of AstraZeneca vaccine became available and had to be used in a hurry on the 55-65 cohort, Christopherson’s firm seems a bridge too far. To call for help would be to embrace private sector nimbleness and expertise; best, the government feels, to keep this accomplishment in public hands.

Ideology has no business in the way of innovation and implementation in a crisis, but don’t tell that to our provincial lords. By virtue of political choice, public health-care workers are ragged and burning down with long hours after a hellish year while their private counterparts are more often than not getting home for dinners and playing with the kids.

At latest count the province has been administering about 30,000 doses a day. Last week 52,000 were scheduled to arrive. There are about 225,000 doses distributed but not administered yet, a gap that stands to widen as shipments shape up and delayed doses stockpile.

By June, a mere eight weeks hence, Canada is scheduled to have imported 40 million doses. By the end of June, every adult in B.C. is supposed to be vaccinated. We’re not one-quarter of the way there. Without a big-time ramp-up, it won’t happen.

But the premier, his health minister, the provincial health officer and the Vancouver Coastal Health chief in charge of the vaccine plan tell us there is nothing to see here.

When Christopherson and I connected, he was in a tranquil mood, only putting things politely and anything but the loaded-for-bear business leader one might expect.

Early on in the pandemic the vaccines were expected only this month, he noted, so governments were caught off-guard – even if for some time it was clear they were imminent – and “there just seems to be a bit of a lack of co-ordinated effort.”

He spoons on the politesse: “We could easily get involved in this and help out, perhaps sending our team of nurses out to companies’ premises and doing the shots onsite. But, you know, to date we have not been contacted.”

Christopherson has seen this movie before with a different BC Liberal government a dozen years ago, when a serious flu was making the rounds as a pandemic and there were lineups for vaccinations. Then, too, the call didn’t come when it could have. It came only very late, when the clamour included casualties.

If Christopherson is reticent to lay blame today, he is clear about the immediate needs.

“It’s going to take us two years at this pace to get everyone vaccinated, so they’ve got to pick up the pace. And really, at this point, they can’t hire enough people. Governments, you know how it is: they can’t move quickly. They’re big bureaucracies. They need to get on it and get all hands on deck.”

He favours letting doctors administer them in their offices, pop-up clinics in neighbourhoods, even frozen food trucks on the prowl – anything to broaden the scope to get the job done. There is no reason private and public sectors can’t co-operate now.

Emotion enters his voice when he alludes to his spectator status in the pandemic.

“This to me is the cause of my career,” he says. “We could help out and help get us out of this pandemic sooner. We will step up.

“You know, I have no animosity towards the government on this at all. I just want to say: We’re here to help and, you know, pick up the phone, Google my website online to get hold of me.” •

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.