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Quebec Premier François Legault responds to a question during a news conference on Feb. 16, 2021, at the legislature in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec said Monday it will administer the newly approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to seniors, despite Canada’s national vaccine expert panel recommending against its use for people over the age of 65.

The province’s vaccine expert committee is recommending that all approved vaccines be used immediately to prevent deaths and hospitalizations, the Health Department said in a news release, adding that the AstraZeneca vaccine “provides more flexibility in immunization efforts, especially for priority groups aged 70 to 79.”

The newly approved vaccine has numerous advantages, the Health Department said, including the fact it doesn’t need to be kept frozen and can be used up to 48 hours after a vial is opened. “Its use will also be favoured for [patients] where mobile vaccination is an optimal strategy to reach them – at home, for example.”

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Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization has said the AstraZeneca vaccine is not recommended for people aged 65 years and over because of insufficient data on its efficacy in older people, despite its approval by Health Canada for adults of all ages.

There are no concerns that the vaccine is unsafe for use, but the NACI panel said the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are preferred for people 65 years old and above “due to suggested superior efficacy.”

Quebec’s immunization committee, however, recommended that in a scenario of limited vaccine availability, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should be given to the highest priority groups, while it said AstraZeneca could be offered to those that come slightly lower on the list.

The AstraZeneca vaccine “should not be routinely offered to people who present a very high risk of disease, complications and/or who would not respond well to any vaccine, including residents in [long-term care] and [private seniors homes], people with immunosuppression and the most exposed health workers,” according to the committee’s report released Monday.

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The report said the overall efficacy rate of the AstraZeneca vaccine was 62.5 per cent. Its efficacy was estimated at 43 per cent for those aged 65 years and over, “but very imprecise given the low number of participants in this group.” The efficacy seemed “very high,” however, when it came to preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths, the report said.

Meanwhile, Quebec on Monday eased COVID-19 restrictions in five regions, including the capital, permitting residents to return to the gym and restaurant dining rooms for the first time in months.

The government also pushed back the nighttime curfew from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. in Quebec City, Chaudiere-Appalaches, Estrie, Mauricie and Centre-du-Quebec, which were downgraded from “red” to “orange” under the province’s pandemic-alert system.

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Premier François Legault has opted to maintain restrictions in Montreal and the surrounding regions because public health authorities fear a novel coronavirus variant will soon cause regional case numbers and hospitalizations to rise again.

François Meunier, vice-president of public affairs for Quebec’s restaurant industry group, Association Restauration Quebec, said the reopening of restaurants in orange zones has given people hope of “being able to start living again a little.”

He said demand appeared strong, with lines forming outside breakfast restaurants in Quebec City Monday morning. Meunier said many of his group’s members have been scrambling to hire staff, adding that some won’t open for a few more days.

He said capacity limits and the curfew will make it very difficult for restaurants to turn a profit, but he said most want to open anyway. “Right now, the goal isn’t so much profitability,” he said in an interview Monday.

“The goal is improving the mental health of restaurant owners,” he said, adding that full closure is something that is “no longer possible, no longer livable.”

Meunier says restaurants have a strict set of rules to follow, including mandatory reservations, collecting clients’ contact information, checking addresses to ensure customers aren’t from red zones, and limiting tables to a maximum of two adults and their minor children.

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He noted that about half the province’s restaurants remain closed because they are located in red zones, such as Montreal.

On Monday, the province reported 579 new COVID-19 cases and nine deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, none of which occurred in the past 24 hours. Hospitalizations remained relatively stable – down by two, to 590 – while the number of intensive care patients rose by one, to 108.

Health Minister Christian Dube has said the province will step up the pace of vaccinations this week as more regions join Montreal in opening mass immunization clinics to the general public.

Dube said Monday on Twitter Quebec would receive over 213,000 vaccine doses this week, including 113,000 of Oxford-AstraZeneca.

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