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Ontario won't administer Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to seniors, health minister says

TORONTO — Ontario seniors won't receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine since there's limited data on its effectiveness in older populations, the province said Tuesday, but it remained unclear who those shots would go to.
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TORONTO — Ontario seniors won't receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine since there's limited data on its effectiveness in older populations, the province said Tuesday, but it remained unclear who those shots would go to.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Ontario plans to follow the advice of a national panel that's recommended against using the newly approved vaccine on people aged 65 and older.

"Anyone over that age it’s recommended that they receive either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine," Elliott said. 

There are no concerns that the vaccine is unsafe for use, but the National Advisory Committee on Immunization said this week that the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are preferred for seniors due to "suggested superior efficacy.''

Elliott said the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot is still a "very versatile" vaccine because it doesn't have the same cold storage requirements as the other two.

As a result, the newly approved shot might be used in correctional facilities, she said, although she did not provide further details. 

Canada is set to receive a half-million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine Wednesday, according to the federal procurement minister. 

Elliott said an updated vaccination plan that factors in expected Oxford-AstraZeneca supply will be shared soon but the province is first awaiting federal guidance about potentially extending the interval of time between first and second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines to four months. 

"There's a lot that is in the mix right now, but we expect that to be finalized very shortly and we will be making a public announcement of the plan very soon," Elliott said. 

British Columbia announced Monday that it was implementing the four-month interval for doses.

Elliott said extending the time between doses would make a "considerable" difference in the vaccine rollout, but the government wants to make its decision based on scientific advice. 

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the lack of clarity on the government's vaccine distribution plan is troubling.

"Why isn't the government being upfront, being clear, being transparent about what the plan is," she said. "I don't think the government is providing any of that information and Ontarians deserve to know."

Ontario has so far focused on vaccinating the highest-priority groups, including long-term care residents and certain health-care workers. 

The province has said it aims to start vaccinating residents aged 80 and older starting the third week of March, though the timeline is subject to change.

Some public health units, however, have moved ahead with vaccinations for the general population, starting with the 80 and older cohort. Those units are taking bookings for immunizations through their own web or phone systems as a provincial portal remains under development. 

In London, Ont., the city's top doctor said the health unit booked more than 5,000 appointments for seniors aged 80 and older within two hours of opening its booking system Tuesday morning. 

"Tremendous response from the 80+ crowd!" Dr. Chris Mackie wrote on Twitter, adding that the phone line was "overwhelmed" with 145,000 calls.

In York Region, seniors lined up outside large vaccination sites for the second day in a row, many leaning on walkers or wheelchairs in the cold weather.

Hamilton and Guelph reported long wait times amid high call volumes as vaccines were made available to older residents. 

The province, meanwhile, began testing its vaccine booking web portal in six public health units on Monday ahead of its full launch on March 15. 

The Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit said Tuesday that it was testing the portal with a small group of health-care workers already scheduled to be vaccinated.

"We are evaluating the results of this pilot to help inform further development of the system before it opens up for the community," it said.

Participants were contacted through their employer and the health unit said it's not yet making appointments for those in the 80 and older age cohort.

Ontario reported 966 more COVID-19 cases on Tuesday and 11 more deaths from the virus. 

It has administered a total of 727,021 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine so far. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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