Laura Fletcher was in her car, on her way to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at an Ottawa-area pharmacy on Tuesday, when she first heard reports about the National Advisory Committee on Immunization decision to “preferentially recommend” mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, over viral vector vaccines such as those from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
The timing was “unsettling,” said Ms. Fletcher, a curriculum adviser for Canadian Institutes of Health Research. But the news didn’t change her willingness to accept the small risk of vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT, which has been linked to AstraZeneca. To date, 11 cases of blood clots with low platelets have been reported to the federal health agencies, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo said Thursday. Three people in Canada have died as a result of the condition.
Ms. Fletcher said she was motivated to get her vaccine quickly by the desire for “things to go back to normal as quickly as possible,” adding, “the more people that are vaccinated, the safer we all are.”
Experts say the demand for the AstraZeneca vaccine has dropped since NACI’s announcement, but many Canadians are still choosing to get it. NACI’s guidance is based on the availability of mRNA vaccines, where people live, and the personal risk of getting COVID-19 – but some have interpreted the announcement as a reversal from previous messaging, and the confusion has sparked widespread criticism.
As of May 6, 14.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Canada and more than 18 million doses have been delivered to provinces and territories, Public Health Agency of Canada officials said at a briefing on Thursday.
In total, 2.3 million doses of AstraZeneca, and a comparable vaccine made in India sold under the name Covishield, have been distributed. Millions more are expected by the end of June, but precise amounts and dates have not been released. Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that as of April 24, 1.2 million people have received at least one shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Joanne Fleet said she was desperate for her two children to resume their “one and only childhoods” when she opted to receive her first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine on Tuesday.
“I have never had a flu shot or even drugs for labour and delivery,” said Ms. Fleet, a former teacher in her 40s who lives in Ancaster, Ont. “But when it comes to my kids losing another year of school, sports, friendships and family, I realized that there was no room for ridiculous anxiety.”
Ms. Fleet ultimately decided that for her, the first available vaccine remains the best one.
But experts fear that frustration caused by NACI’s advice will lead to vaccine hesitancy – particularly among those who were scheduled to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine this week.
“What worries me – and worries a lot of Canadians – is when you have professional, capable physicians and public health experts who are examining the same set of data and saying significantly different things, trust goes out the window,” said Kerry Bowman, a bioethics and global health professor at the University of Toronto.
“Considering [the vaccines have] all been deemed safe and reached a certain threshold, if you get large segments of the population saying, ‘I’m going to wait,’ this is not in the best interest of other people,” Mr. Bowman added, noting the ethical considerations surrounding public perception of NACI’s announcement.
Phil Emberley, a pharmacist and acting director of professional affairs at Canadian Pharmacists Association, said in an interview he has heard from some pharmacists that people have cancelled their appointment to get the AstraZeneca shot.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease physician and member of Ontario’s vaccine task force, said he couldn’t discuss specific numbers, but there had been a noticeable decline in administering AstraZeneca in recent days. A few weeks ago, he said, there were several hundred thousand doses of AstraZeneca sitting unused in freezers until the province lowered the age limit to 40. At that time, “the pace of vaccination with AstraZeneca went up exponentially,” Dr. Bogoch said.
Over the course of a week, supply began to dwindle, which meant that the rate of administration also went down, he said. “There was a huge spike, and then it was gradually declining as more and more AstraZeneca was being used it. But it was still going.”
Following NACI’s comments last week, “the rates of AstraZeneca administration abruptly dropped further,” Dr. Bogoch said.
Amid the mixed messaging, for many who made the decision to take the shot, the choice was rooted in hopes of returning soon to pre-pandemic normalcy.
“We will do anything to get our kids back to the lives they deserve,” Ms. Fleet said. “I’m really rooting for the AstraZeneca to be the underdog hero of the pandemic.”
With a report from Laura Stone
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