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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe speaks in Regina, on Dec. 15, 2020.

Michael Bell /The Canadian Press

The Saskatchewan government has shot a boost of optimism into its fight against COVID-19, announcing it will join other provinces by delaying the second dose of vaccines to speed up immunizations.

Speaking Thursday at a news conference with other premiers, Premier Scott Moe said people will get their second shot up to four months after the first, which falls in line with a recent recommendation from Canada’s national immunization committee.

Alberta, Manitoba and other provinces made similar announcements after British Columbia first said Monday it was moving to a four-month delay.

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The shift comes as health experts point to people being well protected against the novel coronavirus with a first dose, noting the country faces a limited supply of vaccines.

“The benefits are tremendous,” Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, said during a briefing.

“We can emerge out of the pandemic three months earlier than we had anticipated. With a two-dose program, it would have taken us till September. Now we can vaccinate everyone 18 and older as early as June.”

Provincial health officials said that starting Friday, staff will only be giving first shots. The change will not apply to people who have appointments booked to receive a second dose, long-term care residents and staff, as well as those in personal care homes.

Shahab said since vaccinations started in long-term care homes, there have been fewer outbreaks and infections in the facilities.

To date, about 84,000 vaccinations have been done in Saskatchewan out of the roughly 400,000 shots needed to inoculate residents 70 and older and health-care workers at risk of COVID-19 exposure.

Scott Livingstone, CEO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said he expects most of these vaccinations under the first stage of the province’s immunization program will be finished in early April.

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He also asked for patience, as the authority has to adjust how it delivers vaccines with the new four-month window between doses.

Saskatchewan reported 169 new COVID-19 cases and two more deaths on Thursday. The province of 1.1 million people also continues to lead the country with the highest rate of active cases per capita in Canada.

Moe said earlier in the week that delaying the second dose of vaccine would be a game-changer for how long public-health restrictions need to stay in place.

The current order is in effect until March 19. Shahab said decisions about what rules might be relaxed could come next week.

“I know it’s been very hard for people not to be able meet each other in their houses,” he said.

“In the past, we did have, you know, two to three households as a bubble of up to ten. So that’s something that we’re looking at.”

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The Ministry of Health also said it would use 15,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on people aged 60 to 64 and certain health-care workers. A national panel has recommended it not be used on seniors.

The province said these vaccinations will start later this month and eligible residents will be able to book an appointment by phone through a system that is expected to launch next week.

Premiers say federal COVID-19 vaccine procurement delays have left them no choice but to stretch out the time between doses. British Columbia announced Monday it would allow up to four months between doses. Several other provinces followed suit after a national panel of vaccine experts recommended such an extension would be appropriate if supplies are limited. The Canadian Press

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