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Exasperated Canadians watch Americans getting vaccinated faster

The Peace Bridge border crossing between Canada and the United States spans the Niagara River beyond the Mather Arch in Fort Erie, Ontario. (Cole Burston/Bloomberg News)
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FORT ERIE, Ontario — Here in this border town just across the Niagara River from New York state, televisions carry stations from Buffalo. In recent weeks, the news from the U.S. side has been somewhat irksome.

In Erie County, N.Y., everyone 16 years of age and older became eligible for a coronavirus vaccine this month. On the Canadian side, meanwhile, inoculations have been mostly limited to people 40 years and older, Indigenous adults, and other priority groups. And they’re getting only the first shot, for now.

“It’s a point of frustration within Canada and within Niagara,” said Wayne Redekop, Fort Erie’s mayor. “Residents are looking to see who’s getting vaccinated and where. … It seems like if you’re in the United States and you want a vaccination, you can get it.”

After a bumpy start, Canada’s vaccination rollout has picked up pace in recent weeks. Still, the sight of the United States — a neighbor with which the country frequently compares itself — awash in vaccines and racing ahead to inoculate the population is fueling frustration.

Ontario, Canada’s most-populous province, is also among its hardest-hit. Cases have blown past a January peak. Its intensive care units are under such strain that children’s hospitals are admitting adults.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has blamed the current surge in cases and hospitalizations on the federal government, which he says has failed to procure enough vaccines. His lockdown measures, meanwhile, have provoked an angry backlash across the province. Infectious-disease experts accuse him of easing restrictions prematurely, against their advice.

Here in southern Ontario’s Niagara region, about 30 percent of residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine and 2 percent are fully vaccinated, according to government data. In neighboring Erie and Niagara counties on the U.S. side, roughly 45 percent of people have been given at least one dose; 32 percent have been fully vaccinated.

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By Monday, at President Biden’s request, all U.S. states had expanded vaccine eligibility to everyone 16 and older. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said every Canadian who wants a vaccine will have one by the end of September.

Connor Peters, 21, a recent college graduate in Thorold, Ontario, hasn’t been vaccinated. Neither has his 56-year-old mother. But several of his friends on the other side of the border have been.

“When you see Biden saying that he had his 100 [million] shots for 100 days, and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we beat that and we’re going to keep going,’ and we’re sitting out here in Niagara, where we’ve got … 25 percent of our population with one dose … it’s kind of depressing,” Peters said late last week.

The global vaccine rollout has been defined by inequity.

High-income countries, which account for just 16 percent of the world population, have locked up more than 50 percent of near-term supply, according to researchers at Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center.

Canada has reserved access to more than enough doses for its population, striking advance purchase agreements with multiple pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer and Moderna. But it has struggled to get actual vaccines.

A key problem is that Canada, unlike the United States, has limited domestic capacity to make coronavirus vaccines. For now it’s relying entirely on deliveries from manufacturers abroad.

A severe global supply crunch, unexpected manufacturing delays, poor communication about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine from officials at all levels of government and contracts that put the delivery of most doses in the second and third quarters of this year have hindered the rollout.

Responsibility for administering the doses that Ottawa procures and deciding which groups to prioritize has been left to the provinces. Haphazard drives in some provinces have fueled frustration.

In Ontario, residents must navigate a maze of online portals to make appointments in a campaign that has drawn criticism for not targeting those most at risk of infection. With few takers for the AstraZeneca vaccine, the province said Sunday that anyone age 40 and older would be eligible for that shot at pharmacies starting this week.

With few exceptions, Canadian provinces are still mostly vaccinating seniors, some of the middle-aged and several priority groups, but not the broader public.

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The United States has administered more than twice as many doses per capita than Canada has. Nearly 41 percent of people in the United States have received at least one dose, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data, compared with 27 percent in Canada.

The gap in the fully vaccinated is stark: 27 percent of Americans vs. close to 3 percent of Canadians. Canada is stretching the interval between the first and second doses to at least four months to get a first dose into as many people as possible more quickly.

Some here wonder why the United States — which, like Canada, has secured hundreds of millions more doses than it needs — isn’t doing more to share.

“It doesn’t help that our best friend and neighbor did not give us any vaccine,” said Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital.

Nor does it make much sense, he said, that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being produced in Michigan, but Canada’s doses are coming from Europe.

“I can shoot a hockey puck from Ontario and hit Kalamazoo, yet our Pfizer is coming from Belgium,” Bogoch said. “I mean, we love you, but help a brother or sister out.”

The Biden administration announced last month that it would “loan” Canada 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been authorized in the United States. There are tens of millions more doses in its inventory.

Redekop, 71, the Fort Erie mayor, got his first dose last week. He said it’s in U.S. interests to share: The lifting of curbs on nonessential travel at the U.S.-Canada land border probably will be tied to vaccination rates.

Cross-border ties here run deep. Residents cheer for the same sports teams and marry one another. Americans own cottages on the Canadian side. Before the restrictions, residents crossed often to work, visit loved ones or shop.

Canada has recorded far fewer covid-19 deaths per capita than the United States. Most Canadians have supported those curbs. But this month, Canada’s seven-day average of daily cases per capita eclipsed that of the United States for the first time, as a variant-driven surge rips through several provinces.

Canada did better than the U.S. against the coronavirus, but now it’s lagging in vaccinations

The unfolding public health emergency in Ontario was foretold by modeling presented in February by a panel of scientists advising Ford. Critics note that he defied their advice against easing restrictions on commerce and social life.

After the province set records in case counts and ICU admissions this month, Ford closed nonessential businesses and schools. But he stopped short of imposing measures that would target the workplaces that are a main source of infection. Other restrictions, such as closing outdoor playgrounds despite scant scientific evidence that they’re driving transmission, were walked back amid public outcry.

On a recent afternoon in Fort Erie, “closed” signs appeared in the windows of one shop after the next on a street perpendicular to the Niagara River. A handful of people visited a bank. The end of the pandemic seemed far away.

The Rev. Cheryl Wood, 50, a minister at St. John’s Stevensville United Church, said she was vaccinated several weeks ago because faith leaders were prioritized. But she expressed annoyance that her 28-year-old daughter, who also works for the church, is “way, way down the list.”

“I don’t know that I’m envious,” Wood said of the comparatively speedy U.S. inoculation drive. “I’m frustrated.”

Such sentiments are common along the 5,500-mile border.

John Powell, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who lives in Windsor, Ontario, grew so impatient with the pace of vaccinations that he drove across the border to Michigan several weeks ago to get a vaccine at a Rite Aid outside Detroit.

“Seeing friends and colleagues and people I went to school with … on Facebook and getting vaccinated … it was frustrating,” said the 55-year-old. “It didn’t seem right.”

Powell said he knew of other dual citizens who’ve done the same.

“Because Detroit is basically an extension of our backyard, it’s like our neighbors are getting something and we’re not,” Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said.

Canada expects to receive at least 38.5 million doses of coronavirus vaccines this quarter, a dramatic increase from the 9.5 million doses it had received by the end of March.

They can’t come soon enough for Jeremy Lessard, a maintenance plumber in Welland, Ontario. He described the vaccination gap between the two countries as a “sore spot” and said that Canada has “dropped the ball.”

Border restrictions have kept Lessard apart from his fiancee, Tracy Czwojdak, who lives in Buffalo. The pair met on Tinder in 2017. Proximity means cross-border matches are common.

When the pandemic hit, Lessard, 38, said he worried about Czwojdak, 36, as he watched cases explode in the United States. Now she’s been vaccinated, he hasn’t, and his province is in the middle of a public health emergency.

He believes any hope of restrictions being lifted will depend on how quickly Canada gets vaccines into arms.

“The fact that the U.S. has gotten so many done and Canada has gotten so few done is very frustrating to me,” Lessard said. “It’s making that process much more prolonged, and it’s making it that much more difficult for me to see my loved ones.”

Read more:

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