S05 E08

Combating Covid-19 Vaccine Hesitancy


Ken Chan
VP Admin
Brock University

In the eighth and final episode of our fifth season, our host Peter Brenders talks with Ken Chan, VP Admin at Brock University, about his time in the provincial vaccine secretariat, vaccine mandates and anti-vaxxer protests.



From the Chronicle Podcast System, this is the NPC Podcast of the National Pharmaceutical Congress for September 8 2021. The NPC Podcast was created to discuss and consider the purpose, process and people of the pharma industry during the Covid era. We'll continue the health care conversation by answering questions sent by listeners, just like you. 


This program is presented in cooperation with Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. The industry is rapidly evolving, and Impres is designed to help you evolve with it. Learn more about Impres tailored best in class solutions at www.impres.com


Our guest today is Mr. Ken Chan. Ken is Vice President Administration at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. He'll join your host, Peter Brenders, to talk about vaccine mandates. But first, here is Mitch Shannon, CEO of Chronicle Companies.




Thanks Liona. This is the week when many of us confront the back to school reality. For some Covid means it's going to be a virtual reality. But over at Brock University, which happens to be alma mater to two of our Chronicle team members, 2,200 students are piling into dorms this week, as in person classes resume. It will be the first time anyone has set foot in said dorms for a year. This is happening on the watch of Ken Chan, the Brock VP, who until recently was the Assistant Deputy Minister at the Ontario government's Caccine Distribution Secretariat. He'll have a few observations to share about vaccine protocols with Peter. 




Welcome to the NPC Podcast.


I'm Peter Brenders, your host. In our continuing look at the purpose, process and people in pharma in Canada. This episode takes a look at vaccines. Specifically, we're going to dive in on vaccine mandates and implications for life in the pandemic. 


We have an exciting guest today who brings a uniquely informed perspective on our topic. Ken Chan is currently the Vice President Administration of Brock University but was untll very recently, the Assistant Deputy Minister in the Ontario government, leading the provinces Covid-19 Vaccine Distribution Secretariat at the Ministry of the Solicitor General. 


Ken also brings a pharma perspective having previously held roles in the biotechnology health and life sciences sectors. He was the Director of Public Affairs at Vertex Pharma, and Vice President for Advocacy, Research and Healthcare at Cystic Fibrosis Canada. Ken has also held board roles at the University of Toronto, North York General Hospital, Sherbourne Health, and at Lambeth College and Archbishop Tenison's School in the UK. 


Welcome to the NPC Podcast, Ken. 




Peter, thanks for having me on the show. 




As we get started on this hot topic of vaccine mandates, I was hoping you could take us back and maybe provide some history from your time with the Distribution Secretariat. What stories can you share?




Let's think back to this time last year, and vaccines weren't even a reality. And fast forward to December of 2020, we were fortunate to be blessed with the light at the end of the tunnel. And that is the approval of vaccines for use in Canada. And I still remember the very first dose being administered in Toronto. 


And just to remember at that point in time, we were only told in Ontario, they were getting 6,000 Pfizer doses. And based on the two dose interval, 3,000 were available to first group of Ontarians to be vaccinated with the other 3,000 to be held back for when the second dosing interval is available. So not a lot to work with, but certainly difficult decisions to be made in terms of who gets the vaccine, when and why.




So you know, it's funny when you think about that, in the beginning, we're all struggling, we're desperate to get it. And I think sometimes people may have forgotten the angst that we had in the beginning at being at the back of the line, right to get vaccines. And now we're in a space where people are rejecting that which they sought. 


So let's jump into mandates then. So I understand Brock, along with other leading universities in Ontario have implemented vaccine mandates. So what are these? And what was the rationale?




That's certainly, you know, a good reminder in terms of the number of people who were patiently but also anxiously waiting for the Ontarians to be vaccinated. Why don't we start with that, and then, you know, gives you some sense of color as to what we're dealing with today. 


And I remember early days, I talked about the 3,000 first doses and the decision made at that point in time was based on data and evidence. And we knew last year, 2020, at the height of the pandemic we lost a lot of lives sadly in long term care homes. And the focus only was to protect the most vulnerable starting with vaccinating healthcare workers who were in long term care homes supporting our most vulnerable. 


But even then it was quite difficult to appreciate that we even had a low uptick amongst health care workers working in long term care homes. But we persevered and got as many health care workers vaccinated as quickly as possible, so that we can move to vaccinating those who live in a long term care home. So that was certainly the priority. 


And as we look to September of 2021, you know, in Ontario we're well over 80% of people with one dose and soon closing to similar number of people with a second doses. But that's not enough, certainly, for us to get to a point where we are in a position to deal with the emergence of the Delta variant, we need our numbers to be at least 85%. That's certainly what we're hearing from scientific advisors to the province. 


The question of vaccine mandates is one that is obviously a no brainer when you think about it. If we have the overwhelming majority of people in institutions and workplaces, in our society who are vaccinated, what needs to be done to reach the less than 20%? Education certainly has been the focus, but clearly on its own hasn't worked. And in speaking with a number of physicians, when I asked them what their thoughts are on vaccine mandates, they often say, you know, any step being taken to encourage people to get vaccinated is one that's welcome. 


So definitely Brock University similar to other universities taking a proactive step to requiring vaccines for anyone coming on campus. Eventually, that became a directive from the province of Ontario. And now the focus really is on getting at those small number of people who have yet to be vaccinated.




So what's the response been like to this new mandate that's come out there. People excite? Lots of cheering going on? 




You know, when you think about it, looking beyond the universities and colleges sector, we're seeing banks, airlines, still not requiring employees to be vaccinated before they come to the workplace. And certainly as a customer, I want to know whether when I did go to these places of business, that I'm dealing with people who are fully vaccinated. 


Again, you know, we were looking at numbers, overwhelming majority of people are fully vaccinated. For them, this is certainly a no brainer, it doesn't affect them. But what we need to do is to get to the heart of why people are not being vaccinated. Early days, as I think back to the rollout, when I was still on the Provincial Vaccine Secretariat, we worked hard to work with various community understand why is there hesitancy. And in some cases, it had to do with education, in some case had to do with access. 


And one of the very unique projects I had the opportunity to work and was with a number of employers in Ontario, the likes of Maple Lodge Farms, Maple Leaf Foods, Amazon, for example, where we the province provided them with the vaccines, and they actually took steps on their resources to hire health care workers, setting up to vaccinate their employees, many of whom come from communities where vaccine hesitancy is a reality. And on rolling out those workplace clinics, we saw how quickly people were lining up to take their vaccinations. In most of these cases, we're looking at 90% uptake from people otherwise not wanting to be vaccinated. 


So you know, that goes to show when you make vaccine accessible to communities, and educate them on the importance of vaccinations, people will do it. And certainly as we better understand those who have been unable to or unwilling to avail themselves of the vaccines in early days. To better understand, is it because they can't get out of the house to do so and I know public health units across the province have been working hard and for the country for that matter with various community groups to get at the outreach. So pop up clinics going to places where people live, people work, people congregate, people worship, to vaccinate. 


I saw firsthand how successful clinics were and that in Toronto within the communities in mosques and churches. That's to me, you know, goes to show that when you make connections available and the communities are together in believing in the power of vaccines, so be it. 


But I fast forward to today and you know what I find very troubling, Peter, is recent images on social media and the needs of anti-vaxxers protesting at hospitals. You know, and I saw a tweet from a physician who said last year, people were banging drums and pots and pans in support of healthcare workers and the tweet said, and now they're begging windows opposing vaccinations and it really hurts, you know, hits home for so many healthcare workers. Why? Who knows but we certainly need to use tools like the vaccine passport and mandates to bring up the numbers for all of our sake.




You're listening to Ken Chan, Vice President Administration, Brock University on the NPC Podcast. 


It's interesting, I think I saw similar objections and big ones I saw coming out of Vancouver and I see tweets from actual cancer patients that have spent hours in chemotherapy and then having to fight through the anti-vax crowd shouting and yelling at them as they tried to get out of the hospital. And you got to wonder these immunocompromised people dealing with that it's a bit stunning, I think in some way and is seen and how this approach could put such lives at risk. 


I mean, are you guys seeing that? Or what are you seeing at Brock? Are you seeing the same sort of pushback at the university is getting that hospitals are getting as well?




Fortunately, we're seeing a very small number of people who are opposed to the vaccine mandate, and the overwhelming number of people are already vaccinated, they have no issues with admissing proof of vaccines. So certainly, you know, that is the type of leadership we see in in our community. And majority of them actually get them of their own volition even prior to mandating of vaccines in order to come on campus.




So you don't have any really good stories to tell us on sort of the crazy protests that might have come up?




Fortunately, we haven't been subject to any protests yet. However, we've received emails and I've received quite a number of to my personal inbox and seeing the sentiments of some small number of people who don't want to be vaccinated. And when you take the time to see who these people are, not only are they opposed to vaccines, they've also been opposed to wearing of masks and face covering and also to lockdowns. 


So certainly this is a movement that is not backed up by science. You know, at the end of the day, I think the vaccine passports will be a key tool. And let me just close up with this point. That question, when the province Ontario announced they will be requiring vaccine passports, the number of vaccine appointments doubled, overnight. So again, people who are waiting on the sidelines for a reason they're gonna get vaccinated. But you know, what do we do with the anti-vaxxers? Anti-maskers? Anti-lockdown? You know, I think that's one of them. governments and businesses across the country are grappling with.




that it's interesting you say that too is how we're grappling with. So it gives us a thought maybe if we take a look at the future there. And so I can imagine that things are continually changing, like we're seeing government rules are evolving directions are evolving. Even as this fourth wave goes up, goes down, like what's happening there. 


In your position, and must be especially challenging to is when you think about like, what does the future look like? And are you guys planning for another lockdown? Like, how do you plan?




We're all in this together. And the way to avoid future lock downs, not only in Ontario, across the country, but in places around the world is to get more people vaccinated. And we may be proud as Canadians to celebrate the vaccination rates today. But if we look globally, south of the border, across the Atlantic Ocean, look at Asia, Africa, there's still significant numbers of people globally who have yet to be vaccinated. 


And this is what puzzles me. You know, in the early days, Peter, to your point, a good reminder that when the vaccine supply was low, people were begging, people were criticizing our governments and public health authorities on the slowness, but it came down to supply and now we have it. Now we're up there. But think about the people in parts of the world where they can't even get their first shipment of vaccines easily. And even when they do, it's available to only a very small number of the population. 


So when we think about our own approach to planning for your future, you know lockdowns are something that we all want to avoid. And the way to do that as Canadians is to come together, help educate the remaining 20% and ideally lower, perhaps last 10% to get people vaccinated so we can achieve that herd immunity that many scientists are certainly talking about. And the only way that we can get there is if we come together, get vaccinated. And if vaccine passports or mandates is the way to do it, then so be it, because it's a privilege to be able to dine in in a restaurant, to go to a gym to go to a concert, Jays game, Canadiens game, you name it. And if vaccine passports is the only way you can get in. And that's the way to get more people vaccinated. I'm all for it.




You're listening to the NPC Podcast, I'm Peter Brenders, your host. 


It's a great as you talked about, not only do we have a global issue, it's more than just local. It's global. It's coming out there but it's also you start to hear some of the commentary that this pandemic you know is likely to become endemic and so we're going to be living with this for years. This is not an imminent end in any way and how does, you know, I sort of wonder how that affects, again, for planning? How does that fit within as you think about it, like even if we have the vaccine mandates, and if we're living in an endemic world where there's lots of this infectious disease could continue on? Does that change things with within your business planning?




We're opening up a campus, I had the opportunity yesterday to visit the dining services team, now, our campus is welcoming 2,200 students this weekend, who will be moving in on campus. And we're not an island unto ourselves. And when you think about it, people are flying from different parts of the world, getting quarantined or having been fully vaccinated to be able to come on campus, there's the first step, but certainly as we think about how we're going to live with the pandemic or endemic, depending on how the science evolves over time, you know, we need to be mindful of the role of vaccines in enabling us to get some form of normalcy into how we live. 


I was on the plane for the first time in two years. Now, I was in the middle seat in economy, between two people. And was I nervous, was I fearful? No. Why? Because I was vaccinated. And this was a flight from Vancouver to Toronto, so four hours. It was a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. And over 200 passengers and on the flight. Was I worried? No, because I know I'm protected by the vaccines. And I know that the airlines did a great job in cleaning and disinfecting. 


And when I saw how confident the flight attendants were, as they were walking through the aisle, serving drinks, and cleaning up after the passengers, right? The role vaccination and Canadians coming together to support one another, can do that to provide that silver lining, and be kind to each other. And in fact, I would say I've never had a stranger sitting next to me until now. Because people check and say, Hey, how you doing and the politeness of saying, Hey, I'm about to have a drink? Are you okay if I take my mask off to have a coffee, and I said, no problem at all. 


So something good will come out of this, Peter, and lots of hard work. That's also ahead of us, but there's also a silver lining and a light at the end of the tunnel. 




You know, it's exciting you think about like we do have work to do, and I'm encouraged to hear it sort of that that silver lining and people sort of coming together on that. Do you think there's, you know, there are really good things coming out of this one? Have we changed sort of how we operate, how we how we work or you know, what we could look forward to post-pandemic.?




The one thing I'm looking forward to is no one had being told that I'm on mute, as I'm talking, you know, certainly I think that's going to be a blessing unto itself. And you're in a podcast, and fortunately, you've trained me well, and you didn't have to tell me that I'm on mute as I'm talking to you. 


But certainly, I think, you know, there are lots that we can take away from the last two years. But one, I think, that is quite powerful as someone having worked in life sciences in the biotech world is the role that innovative pharmaceutical and biotech companies, the role they play in advancing the health and well being. You know, like I said, last year, this time, if one would say, vaccines were coming, and that's going to be our passport out of this pandemic, I'd probably say, yeah, let's see how things unfold. 


But when you think about it in Canada, not one, not two, not three, four and more vaccines are currently on the market that have been tested, they've been approved, that are safe, effective, to help us out of there. So again, this is one of those where the power of innovation, the power of resilience, in the pharmaceutical biotech industry, working in conjunction with scientists, at universities and hospitals around the world, again, goes to show that when industry, academia, and government come together, something good can come out of it. 


And as we look to the future, you know, thinking about the various disease areas, so let's, you know, look beyond the pandemic and  Covid-19. Think about rare diseases, for example, it's one that you and I have been in that space in the past, and other diseases where there's an unmet need. Now, the fact that we've had scientists come together, and governments come together very quickly to approve after a rigorous review of those vaccines, and find a way to make it accessible by helping pay for it gives us hope that as we think about future unmet needs, that there'll be an opportunity for us to get innovative medicines to the hands of patients much faster.




So I think that's a great way for us to wrap this up, Ken, is those two thoughts in particulars, a reminder to everyone that it was industry and working with the government, working with the scientists that is getting us out of this pandemic. That's where the solution lies, and that the future needs that patients have and that we're going to have in our system comes from that continuing cooperation between industry, governments, science and the research. 


We have been speaking with Ken Chan, Vice President Administration, Brock University on the NPC Podcast. Thank you for listening.




Thanks to Ken and Peter and to our listeners on Brock University's campus radio station CFBU 103.7 FM. Remember these two important words this term: social distancing. 


If you have questions for Ken or comments for us about today's conversation, send a message via Twitter to @2021NPC. You can also send email to health@chronicle.org or call our comment line at 647-873-6995. 


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It's time to register for the 15th Annual National Pharma Congress, the place where Canada's Life Sciences professionals come together to learn and network. Learn more at www.pharmacongress.info


This episode brings us to the end of another season of the NPC podcast and we want to thank our sponsors at Impres, Canada's next generation commercial partner. Check them out at www.impres.com and to Will and Tiana, all our listeners thank you for your support. 


This is Mitch Shannon of Chronicle Companies. The podcast producer this season has been Jeremy Visser. The announcer was Liona Discorso. The musical theme is performed with fervor by the NPC Podcast Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Jean-Claude Millbrook. 


We'll be back soon with our fall season. Until then, listen to the teacher.