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Dr. Penny Ballem speaks about phase two in B.C.'s COVID-19 immunization plan as Dr. Bonnie Henry, Premier John Horgan, and Minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on March 1, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia predicts all of its eligible adults will be able to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of July, two months earlier than it had originally planned.

B.C. Premier John Horgan and two top doctors chalked up this acceleration to the province more than doubling the waiting time to get the booster shot as well as a third authorized vaccine, AstraZeneca, soon arriving on Canada’s West Coast.

“It’s very, very good news for returning to life as usual, but, as the Premier says, in the meantime we still have to pay close attention to our public-health guidelines,” Penny Ballem, a long-time civil servant and medical doctor leading B.C.’s mass immunization effort, said at the press briefing Monday.

Dr. Ballem said 400,000 people in B.C. are expected to be vaccinated by early April, but that number could rise because 70,000 more first doses will be available now that B.C. has pushed the time people may have to wait between their first and second doses of both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines from six to 16 weeks.

Dr. Ballem and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said the province extended this booster-shot window based on the first dose’s “miraculous” protection of at least 90 per cent of recipients as well as data from the BC Centre for Disease Control showing outbreaks in long-term care facilities and hospitals fall to almost zero just three weeks after staff and residents get their first jab.

Dr. Henry said the National Advisory Committee on Immunization is expected to issue a statement to align with B.C.’s decision, which is also based on similar data from Quebec and countries including Israel and Britain. After B.C.’s announcement, Ontario said it is awaiting guidance from this national panel of experts so it can follow suit and lengthen the window for booster shots, which could lead to its general population getting vaccinated much earlier than planned.

In an interview with CBC Monday evening, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, Mona Nemer, said B.C.’s move was a “population-level experiment” and that it would be better if the province, and others, “stick with the data” and deliver second doses within the existing guidelines.

Fiona Brinkman, co-lead of data analytics for the Canadian COVID-19 Genomics Network, which is sequencing the virus to identify variants and track its movement, said it makes sense to delay the second dose for younger adults – those under 40 and even 50 years old – to increase the overall population’s access to a first dose. But, she said, delaying the second dose for those over 80 may put them at increased risk because trials have shown people this old don’t develop as many antibodies after a first dose.

“The lower efficacy of the vaccine after one dose in those over 80 is a concern and warrants closely monitoring because there is an increased risk in that population,” said Dr. Brinkman, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s department of molecular biology and biochemistry.

The other reason for optimism in B.C., Dr. Henry said, is Ottawa authorized AstraZeneca for use last Friday and this vaccine will start arriving in the province next week.

Experts have advised that this drug should not be given to seniors because there is not enough data on how well it works for elders. So B.C. will use any supply of AstraZeneca to create a parallel immunization campaign for first responders and essential workers, Dr. Henry said. A provincial working group is still deciding which people will get access to this third brand of vaccine, but that group could include police, firefighters and teachers as well as low-paid workers labouring in crowded places such as meat-packing plants, she said.

“We’ve had a number of places in communities around the province where we’ve had outbreaks. We can think about things like poultry workers [and] people who work in some of our mail-distribution centres,” Dr. Henry said.

Those front-line workers will have to accept a jab of AstraZeneca or wait their turn to get access to the other two vaccines at the same time as people of the same age in the wider population under B.C.’s mass immunization push, Dr. Henry said.

Meanwhile, the province’s five health authorities will contact residents and staff of independent living centres, those living in seniors’ supportive housing as well as home-care support clients and staff this week, the province said. People 90 years old and up as well as First Nations people 65 and older can begin scheduling their first doses by contacting special call centres next week, with vaccines flowing the following week, the public-health leaders stated Monday.

Alberta and Quebec began taking immunization bookings for their oldest seniors last month, but those rollouts were hampered by systems crashing under an explosion in demand.

Dr. Ballem, a former manager of Vancouver city hall, said the province will go on a public-awareness blitz to try to educate the 175,000 people 80 and over that they need to stagger their calls to B.C.’s new booking system.

“They all want to get vaccinated, which is a really good thing, and we are going to vaccinate them all,” Dr. Ballem said. “But when they all call in at the same time, there’s no call centre in the world that can actually cope with that.”

David Naylor, co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force and a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, told The Globe recently that giving more people their first dose will save more lives even if it slows down the distribution of boosters.

“That reflects the magic multiplicative effect of fewer people getting and transmitting disease,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement, adding this approach needs to be aggressively monitored given variants of COVID-19 have now reached Canada.

With a report from Laura Stone in Toronto and The Canadian Press

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