Both Ontario and Alberta say they will be administering AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines to people age 40 and over.
In a statement Sunday afternoon, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Health Minister Christine Elliott said that, “based on current supply,” pharmacies and primary care settings in the province would be offering the vaccines to the now larger age group starting Tuesday.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said in an announcement to Twitter Sunday evening that his province will also be giving shots of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to people over 40.
“This decision is based on growing scientific knowledge about the vaccine and is based on Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health’s advice,” Kenney wrote. “Details will follow tomorrow (Monday) morning and bookings will open for Tuesday.”
The provinces’ move comes just hours after Canada’s federal health minister, Patty Hajdu, said that provinces and territories were “free to use” AstraZeneca’s vaccine on any groups aged 18 and above, despite the country’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommendation to not give the vaccine to those under 55.
Hajdu’s statement came after an announcement from the federal government Sunday afternoon that it will send more support to Ontario, mainly in the form of personnel and testing, as the province grapples with ICU levels and record-breaking case numbers of COVID-19.
Responding to several questions from reporters during a press conference, including one on whether or not the government would recommend provinces to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine to age groups over 18, Hajdu said that the NACI’s recommendations were evolving based on the current evidence and that there was nothing stopping provinces from more widely using the vaccines.
“Provinces and territories are free to use AstraZeneca in an age population over 18, as per Health Canada’s license for use in Canada,” said Hajdu.
Healthcare accessibility advocate Sabina Vohra-Miller said that Ontario’s decision to widen its AstraZeneca vaccine age group was “exactly what we need to be doing.”
“So Ontario is on the brink of collapse right now. We’re on a high speed train, essentially unable to brake in time. So opening the vaccine to 40 plus will save so many lives right now. It’s a good decision,” Vohra-Miller said in an interview with Global News.
“There’s so much due diligence on safety that is occurring. And at this point, given the situation in Ontario, the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks.”
The question over whether or not expanded usage of AstraZeneca’s shot should be considered by Canadian provinces and territories comes over reports of large amounts of the vaccine set to expire due to a lull in demand in the 55 and over age group to get that vaccine.
The NACI first recommended the vaccine to not be given to those below 55 in late March, citing concerns over reports of blood clotting then.
Two cases of rare blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine have been confirmed in Canada so far. While this has heightened hesitancy towards the vaccine, experts have since pointed to female birth control and smoking as being more likely to induce blood clotting.
Linda Dresser, an infectious diseases expert and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News in an earlier interview that blood clots “are more common with just day-to-day living than they are with any of the vaccines, including the AstraZeneca and the Johnson & Johnson.”
Ben Chan, another professor at the University of Toronto, said the chances of getting blood clots from the AstraZeneca shot were “equivalent to the risk of being hit by a car and dying in Toronto in a given year.”
“Yes, these are risks, we should be aware of them, but we need to put them into perspective compared to the daily risks that we have in our lives around us,” he told Global News in an interview.
“Just about every medication that we take has some potential for side effects, and all those medications have great advantages to us. They help us keep alive.”
Both the European Medical Association and Health Canada have both maintained that the benefits of using AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine still outweigh any of the risks.
“Reports of blood clots with low platelets in people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are very rare,” the Public Health Agency of Canada previously told Global News in a statement.
“Based on all of the evidence available internationally to date, Health Canada continues to consider that the benefits of the AstraZeneca and Covishield vaccines to protect against COVID-19 outweigh the potential risks.”
Canada has to date distributed over 12.7 million vaccines, including 2.3 million from AstraZeneca, to provinces and territories across the country, according to Health Canada. Hajdu told reporters on Sunday that the country was expecting to receive between 48 to 50 million vaccine doses by the end June.
To date, over 9.7 million vaccine doses have been administered across the country — with just around 20 per cent of Canada’s population receiving at least one dose.
Healthcare workers and public health units across the country are now grappling with Canada’s third wave of the pandemic, with some provinces and territories recording record-breaking new cases of the virus. Hospitalizations and case numbers in Ontario have reached an all-time high as well.
— With files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Katrina Ramlochan, Hannah Jackson, Saba Aziz and Twinkle Ghosh.