Two provinces will offer the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to those aged 40 and over starting Tuesday, officials announced Sunday following days of mounting pressure to lower the minimum age.
Alberta and Ontario had previously stuck to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s recommendation to offer the AstraZeneca shot to those 55 and over due to a slightly elevated risk of an extremely rare blood clot disorder.
But as hospitalizations surged to unprecedented levels in Ontario and Alberta saw unparalleled rates of COVID-19, their governments announced matching plans to expand eligibility.
“Alberta is lowering the minimum age to receive the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from 55 to 40,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tweeted on Sunday night. “This decision is based on growing scientific knowledge about the vaccine.”
He said more information would come Monday, and bookings would open Tuesday.
The office of Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott made a similar announcement hours earlier.
“Based on current supply, Ontario will begin offering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to individuals aged 40 and over at pharmacy and primary care settings across the province effective Tuesday,” spokeswoman Alexandra Hilkene said in an email.
The statement came after Elliott’s federal counterpart told a news conference that such a move was well within the provinces’ jurisdiction.
“NACI provides advice to provinces and territories,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said. “They can adjust their use for AstraZeneca as per their desire and the advice from their own public health authorities and medical expertise.”
She noted that Health Canada has licensed the AstraZeneca shot for use in people over the age of 18.
“NACI continues to review the advice on AstraZeneca use and will have updated guidance in the very near future,” Hajdu added.
Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, tweeted that there is “‘surplus supply at risk of expiring.”
The head of the Ontario Pharmacists Association said most AstraZeneca doses in Ontario don’t expire until the end of May, but that a timer starts ticking as soon as a vial — which contains 10 doses — is punctured.
“Once a vial is punctured, it is only viable for up to 48 hours when stored in a fridge or six hours when not in the fridge,” Justin Bates said.
He said vaccine hesitancy around AstraZeneca has led to last-minute appointment cancellations, meaning some of those doses could go to waste — something pharmacists are working hard to avoid.
Many Ontario physicians took to social media to express their frustration with the province’s lack of action on the issue ahead of Sunday’s announcement.
“Pharmacies, listen up. DO NOT WASTE A SINGLE DOSE OF THE AZ VACCINE. Explain the risk and obtain informed consent to administer to people under age 55,” Dr. Brian Goldman said in a tweet Sunday.
Dr. Irfan Dhalla, vice-president of Unity Health Toronto, agreed.
“It’s hard to imagine the provincial government coming after pharmacies or family doctors for using AZ in people (under) 55,” he tweeted.
Later, he praised Elliott’s decision and urged the province to send more to COVID-19 hot spots.
Steven Del Duca, who heads up the Liberal party in the province, took that call even further.
“Doug Ford must release the AstraZeneca vaccine from pharmacy freezers and get it into the arms of anyone over 18 in a hot spot,” he tweeted Sunday. “(Patty Hajdu) was clear: there is nothing stopping him from getting shots into arms.”
Those in Alberta had made similar calls.
“It sounds like Alberta is having trouble using its AstraZeneca. Lower the minimum age; Gen X can help!” Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, tweeted earlier in the week.
Some have been hesitant to get the AstraZeneca vaccine due to a rare blood clotting condition, which has thus far affected two Canadians — one in Quebec and one in Alberta.
More than 700,000 doses of AstraZeneca have been administered in this country.
The global frequency of the blood clot disorder, known as vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT, has been estimated at about one case in 100,000 to 250,000 doses.
The risk of developing blood clots due to COVID-19 is much higher, and experts say people should accept the first vaccine they’re offered.
Meanwhile, the federal government announced Sunday that it was mobilizing its own resources and co-ordinating with lesser-hit provinces to send health-care workers and other support to help Ontario as it battles record-breaking COVID-19 numbers.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the Ontario government would respond to Ottawa’s offer.
Hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units continued to reach record heights in the province, which reported 4,250 new COVID-19 infections in the last 24 hours.
Ontario announced a number of new restrictions to quell the skyrocketing numbers, but has faced pressure to roll back limits on outdoor activities, which critics have said will do little to stop the spread.
Meanwhile, data released by Canada’s chief public health officer indicated the average daily number of hospitalizations and deaths in the country jumped by more than 30 per cent between April 9 and 15 compared to the week before.
The latest national figures showed an average of 3,428 people with COVID-19 were being treated in Canadian hospitals each day during the most recent seven-day reporting period, representing a 34 per cent increase over the week before.
An average of 41 people died each day during the same stretch, which is 38 per cent higher than the previous week.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said cases, test positivity rates and intensive care admissions are all rising as Canada battles a wave of COVID-19 that is driven by more contagious virus variants.
Quebec, meanwhile, reported more than 1,300 new infections in the past 24 hours.
Nunavut counted three new cases of COVID-19, for a total of 22 active cases.
Prince Edward Island recorded three new cases, while Nova Scotia logged seven and New Brunswick added 10.
Farther west, Manitoba recorded 170 new cases of the virus and one added death, while Saskatchewan counted 289 new cases and one death.
Alberta, which is currently dealing with the highest rate of COVID-19 per capita in Canada, reported 1,516 new cases of the virus and three more deaths.
As of Sunday evening, Alberta’s rate of active COVID-19 cases was 405.6 per 100,000, compared to 282.26 per 100,000 in Ontario.
— With files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal and Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press