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Pharmacist Mario Linaksita administers the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Sharon Berringer, 56, at University Pharmacy, in Vancouver on April 1, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The 315,000 British Columbians who opted for the Oxford-AstraZeneca or Covishield vaccines this spring can expect to have a choice of booster shots, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Thursday.

Uncertainty has undermined the distribution of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and Covishield, a comparable one made in India.

B.C. began administering the two versions of AstraZeneca in early March, but suspended the program – in step with other provinces – following rare instances around the globe of vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia, or VITT, linked to AstraZeneca.

The vaccine was reintroduced on the advice of public-health officials, who have urged Canadians to take the first vaccine they are offered.

On Thursday, Dr. Henry announced B.C. has confirmed its first case of the rare vaccine-linked blood clots in a woman in her 40s, who is in stable condition in hospital.

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The woman went to her family doctor when she developed symptoms less than one week after her shot. She was then referred to hospital for treatment.

Across the country, several Canadians have died of VITT. A 52-year-old Edmonton woman, Lisa Stonehouse, went to her local hospital on April 29 with a severe headache after receiving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine about a week earlier. She was taken off life support on Monday. Wilf Lowenberg said his long-time family friend might still be alive if hospital staff had taken her side effects more seriously.

Dr. Henry said early detection is important, and urged anyone with concerns following their vaccination to seek medical advice. B.C. physicians have been sent an advisory of symptoms to watch for, and a protocol for blood tests, to ensure accurate diagnosis.

“It can be alarming to hear of this blood clot. And if you are somebody who has received this vaccine, you need to know that it is rare, and it is treatable,” Dr. Henry said.

In addition to public concerns about the vaccine’s safety, the province also has a problem with supply. It used up most of its AstraZeneca in March and April, when other vaccines were scarce, and no further deliveries are scheduled. “We are not expecting a lot more of the AstraZeneca to come in,” Dr. Henry said. But there will be some, she added.

Canada has an advance purchase agreement for 20 million additional doses of AstraZeneca, meaning it has the option to get more supply if needed. But after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization declared this week that the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are “preferred” over the viral-vector vaccines such as AstraZeneca, it is unclear how much more will be purchased.

Part of that decision will hinge on whether it is safe to “mix and match” vaccines. Dr. Henry said she expects new data from Britain by the end of May to determine whether it is effective to provide a different booster shot. That will clear the way for those who have had AstraZeneca to opt for one of the more readily-available mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer when they are due for their booster shot.

“It will be a choice for people, we will ensure that we have enough of the AstraZeneca vaccines so that people have the choice of receiving that as their second shot,” she said.

“We know it’s a very effective vaccine and that the risk of these very rare blood clots are very low. But I’m hopeful that people will be able to have that choice of receiving a messenger-RNA vaccine or a second dose of the AstraZeneca.”

Meanwhile, British Columbia is starting this month to receive large and regular shipments of Pfizer, allowing it to fast-track its age-based vaccine program, to expand eligibility to residents as young as 12, and to boost access to vaccine clinics in Surrey, the province’s persistent pandemic hot spot.

All grocery workers in the Fraser Health region are now eligible to receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. And, Fraser Health is increasing screening in Surrey schools, with take-home COVID-19 kits that use a mouth rinse/gargle collection system. The kits will provide students who become symptomatic while at school with quick and non-invasive testing.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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