Ontario will start offering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to those aged 40 and over starting on Tuesday, the province announced Sunday following days of mounting pressure to lower the minimum age.
The province had previously stuck to the National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s recommendation to only 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 AstraZeneca vaccines sat in pharmacy refrigerators, Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office confirmed the plan to make the shots available to more residents.
“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,” Alexandra Hilkene said in an email on Sunday evening.
Hours earlier, Elliott’s federal counterpart told a news conference that there is nothing stopping the province of Ontario – or any province for that matter – from changing its age guidelines for the vaccine.
“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 that most of the 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 to retrieve the first shot.
“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 the AstraZeneca shot has led to last-minute appointment cancellations that mean 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 to unlock some of the AstraZeneca vaccines, and urged the province to send even more to COVID-19 hot spots.
Steven Del Duca, who heads up the Liberal party in the province, agreed.
“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.”
The calls to lower the threshold for the AstraZeneca vaccine extended beyond Ontario’s borders.
“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 this week.
An Alberta government spokeswoman said Sunday that the province’s chief medical officer was working with NACI to decide whether to expand eligibility for the shot, but that they have yet to come up with a decision.
Some have been hesitant to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine due to a very rare blood clotting condition, which has thus far affected two Canadians.
More than 700,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine 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.