Alberta is altering the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility rules for residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and Banff — and will redirect a large shipment of COVID-19 vaccine to both areas.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the changes Wednesday on Twitter, saying he had approved the plan earlier in the day.
The province will lower the eligibility age for the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to people 30 and older in Banff and Wood Buffalo.
The age of eligibility for the Moderna vaccine will also be lowered to 30 and older in adjacent Indigenous communities, Shandro said.
"These areas are being hardest hit by the third wave, yet seeing lower than average vaccine coverage," he said on Twitter.
The eligibility changes will be made "as soon as possible," Shandro said.
Shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, produced by J&J subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, are expected to arrive in Canada this week. Alberta expects to receive about 30,000 doses, Shandro said.
Banff and Lake Louise are dealing with 158 active cases. Wood Buffalo has the highest per-capita rate of active COVID-19 cases in Alberta and declared a state of local emergency this week because of climbing transmission rates.
There are 17 active outbreaks in the region, including 12 at oilsands camps and work sites.
Classrooms have closed and the region's only hospital has expanded its intensive care capacity.
Municipal and Indigenous leaders in Fort McMurray are calling on the provincial government to bring in targeted regional measures to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
In a letter, the 11 Indigenous communities in the region urged Premier Jason Kenney to focus more on restrictions, including stay-at-home orders and a community-wide curfew.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says the province rejected those requests in a meeting with First Nations and Métis leaders Wednesday.
"We have to take drastic measures. We have to do it," he said. "It's good to hear the vaccine rollout is coming but there's still a crisis happening in the hospital."
Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott called the expanded vaccine rollout "an extremely positive step," but he wanted the province to lower the age eligibility to 18.
"I'm pleased to see this but that's why I consider it a first step," he said.
Targeted campaign needed: Kenney
On Tuesday, Kenney said he would not alter the vaccine rules for Wood Buffalo. But during a news conference Wednesday, the premier said the targeted vaccine campaign is needed.
"As I've mentioned before, we have seen a significant number of vaccine doses going unused," Kenney said, noting that vaccine clinic hours in Fort McMurray would be extended immediately.
Kenney said the changes were based on the advice of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization and recommendations from Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer health.
"Dr. Hinshaw, in consultation with experts, has decided that accelerating the vaccination program in those communities, which also happen to have younger populations, would be helpful in addressing the outbreaks."
He said the province is working closely with local leadership and is considering other new measures in some communities, including in Wood Buffalo.
"I try to convey that there's, I think, a false idea out there that quote-unquote lockdowns stop viral spread and that they can be effective in every instance," he said.
"That's not the case. But I will say that we are actively considering additional targeted measures, particularly in areas that are being hardest hit."
Kenney said health officials are working closely with First Nations leaders to address concerns around rising transmission rates.
He said vaccine hesitancy was an issue first raised by Indigenous leaders at the outset of the pandemic, and he wants to provide those communities added support in protecting their vulnerable populations.
"They're right to be concerned about the situation in that part of the province," he said.
He said Alberta is scheduled to get its first shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Monday.