KITCHENER -- Researchers at the University of Waterloo have created a model that can help health officials decide who should get the COVID-19 vaccine first.

The model said people over the age of 60 should be vaccinated first if there's one available by January 2021, because that age group has the highest death rate from the disease.

However, if the vaccine isn't available until the summer of 2021, then a different group could be prioritized, according to the model.

The model can use information from any province or country to decide its vaccination strategy in order to prevent the most deaths from COVID-19.

“When a vaccine becomes available many people will want to be vaccinated at first, and there might be supply issues, so policymakers will have to prioritize which ages should get it first,” UW professor and study co-author Chris Bauch said in a news release. “Under those conditions, the best vaccination strategy for a specific region depends on when the vaccine becomes available, the number of people in a population who have contracted COVID-19 and are now immune, and the social reaction to the virus, such as the wearing of a mask and social distancing.”

The model outlines four COVID-19 vaccine strategies: vaccinating people 60 or older first, vaccinating people 20 or younger first, vaccinating everyone irrespective of their age or to start by targeting the area of the population that has the most contacts. Researchers said the last three strategies will prevent transmission, while the first strategy targets the most vulnerable group.

Researchers also modelled a case where people didn't change their masking or physical distancing behaviour. If that is the case, the last three strategies interrupting transmission would work better if a vaccine is available at the beginning of the year or in the summer of 2021.

“This research exemplifies how important it is to factor human behaviour into mathematical models of the pandemic,” said Madhur Anand, a co-author on the study and a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. “We all have a hand, or I should say, a mask, in this.”

PhD candidate Peter Jentsch also worked on the study. It has been submitted for peer review and publication. UW said it's being released ahead of that process as part of the university's commitment to informing Canada's COVID-19 response.