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LILLEY: Good news on vaccine front changes Ontario’s plans once again

AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine could arrive in province as early as next week

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Ontario’s plan for vaccinations is up in the air once again but for a good reason this time — we’re getting a new vaccine.

We don’t know when for sure, but between 160,000 to 190,000 doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine could start arriving in the province between next week and the end of March.

The province now needs to determine who to give the vaccine to and whether certain regions or hotspots should be given priority.

While Health Canada has approved the vaccine for all adults, including seniors, some jurisdictions have reported the vaccine is less effective in those over 65. Germany has restricted AstraZeneca’s use in people over 65, but the World Health Organization and others say it is effective among all age groups.

A study out of Scotland released earlier this week showed that four weeks after getting the first dose of AstraZeneca, the risk of hospitalization fell by 94%. The AZ jab was primarily given to those over 65 in Scotland and even among those over 80 the risk of admission to hospital fell by 81% four weeks after a single dose.

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“From the data that we’ve got at the moment, it seems like this vaccine seems to be working across age groups,” said lead researcher Dr. Aziz Sheikh, from the University of Edinburgh.

Still, Rick Hillier, the retired general charged with the provincial vaccine distribution program, said on Friday that the province will consider using the newly-approved vaccine for specific settings.

“All we await are the details of its characteristics and the monograph that comes from Health Canada that tells us to which populations it would be best used and then we will finalize how we will roll it out here in Ontario,” Hillier said.

That could see Ontario use the new vaccine for younger Ontarians, essential workers, high-risk neighbourhoods, or simply expand the existing program.

The news of more doses comes as the provincial Science Table, which advises the Ford government on the handling of COVID-19, released a report calling for a shift in vaccine strategy. The report says more lives could be saved if a focus was placed on high-risk neighbourhoods where the risk of outbreak and hospitalization is greatest rather than focusing on age first.

“Projections indicate that a vaccine strategy prioritizing both age and neighbourhood would prevent an additional 3,767 cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and 702 hospital admissions, 145 ICU admissions, and 168 deaths from COVID-19 as compared to a strategy that prioritizes based on age alone,” the report states.

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Ontario’s initial plan prioritized healthcare workers over seniors as a way to protect patients from infections and preserve hospital capacity. Recently the plan shifted to move those over 80 higher up the queue while health workers not dealing directly with patients were moved down.

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This report from the Science Table doesn’t call for putting high-risk neighbourhoods ahead of those over 80 but does point out that younger adults in high-risk neibourhoods are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 that those from lower risk areas. For example, someone aged 50-54 in the highest risk neighbourhoods was more likely to die from COVID than someone 80-plus in the lowest risk areas.

That said, Premier Doug Ford is reluctant to move away from an age-based approach knowing that 95% of COVID-19 deaths in Ontario have occurred in those over the age of 60.

With the approval of AstraZeneca, and the pending approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the province has the ability to move ahead with their age-based strategy while also putting an added emphasis on at-risk neighbourhoods.

Approving more vaccines and obtaining more doses will make all of these decisions easier.

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