Alberta will temporarily stop offering the AstraZeneca vaccine to people under age 55 following warnings about possible side-effects, the province's top public health doctor says.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said the pause is related to reports from Europe about rare instances of blood clots linked to AstraZeneca vaccine.
"This is a precautionary measure that is being taken across Canada," Hinshaw said at a news conference on Monday afternoon.
"There is no evidence of any similar issues linked to the other vaccines that we are using in Alberta," she said. "There have also been no reported cases of these blood clots following immunization in Alberta or anywhere in Canada."
Despite the pause, she said, Alberta may still be able to hit its target to have vaccine offered to all adults by the end of June.
"Of course, this will depend on receiving the amounts of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine that we anticipate, but we believe that it still may be possible to meet that target."
The pause will allow Health Canada to conduct further research and gather more information from around the world, Hinshaw said.
"I want to assure you that anyone under the age of 55 who has already received a dose of AstraZeneca vaccine is not considered to be at high risk of blood clots. However, as with anyone who receives any medication, including vaccine, they should monitor their health and seek immediate medical attention if they experience health concerns."
Hinshaw said about 900 people in that age group have received the AstraZeneca vaccine in Alberta.
WATCH | Dr. Deena Hinshaw said about 900 people aged 55 and under have received the AstraZeneca vaccine in Alberta
"We will continue monitoring the emerging evidence around this issue," Hinshaw said. "We will also continue doing everything possible to ensure that our immunization program remains safe and effective."
Studies are underway to determine which vaccine that people already immunized with AstraZeneca will be able to receive when it comes time for their second dose.
"The AstraZeneca vaccine remains a good choice for those who are at risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, who would otherwise have to wait several months to access a vaccine," Hinshaw said.
"It is important to remember that AstraZeneca is very effective at preventing severe outcomes from COVID-19 infection, and that COVID-19 infections come with a very significant risk of blood clots and other complications.
The benefits of getting the vaccine far outweigh the small potential risks, she said.
Latest case numbers
On Monday, Alberta reported 7,922 active cases of COVID-19, with 545 new cases.
Screening identified 249 cases linked to more-contagious variants of the coronavirus. The 2,152 active variant cases make up 27.2 per cent of the current total.
The reproductive number, the rate at which the virus spreads, has been above 1.0 for several weeks, Hinshaw said, with the rate for the variants of concern now at 1.35.
There were 288 patients being treated in hospital for the illness, including 64 in intensive care. No more deaths were reported.
Alberta has now administered more than 608,000 doses of vaccine.
Hinshaw also announced that the province's vaccine rollout will expand to Phase 2B on Tuesday, eventually making more than 945,000 Albertans with underlying health conditions eligible to book COVID-19 shots, the province says.
People born in 1963 or before with eligible underlying health conditions will be able to book appointments starting on Tuesday through participating pharmacies that have vaccine supplies in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer, the province said in a news release.
As more supply becomes available, other pharmacies will begin to offer bookings, the news release said.
Starting April 5, Alberta Health Services will start taking bookings for people eligible in Phase 2B born in 1959 or before.
"I know that many people will be excited that Phase 2B is soon to be underway," Hinshaw said. "At the same time, we must ask Albertans for patience.
"With nearly one million Albertans in Phase 2B, this is the largest single group we have made eligible for vaccination. With limited supply, we will have to move slowly and take small steps until more doses arrive."
Hinshaw urged people to get immunized as soon as they're eligible.
"Make sure your parents, grandparents and extended family are aware of the vaccine and how to book their appointments," she said.
"In the meantime, please continue to respect the health measures in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect each other.
"Twice we have bent the curve before by limiting in-person interactions and by protecting each other in our communities, and we can do it again."
Phase 2B rollout begins
Additional birth years in Phase 2B will become eligible as more vaccine arrives. To find the closest location with an available booking date, eligible people should check the list on Alberta Blue Cross, the province said.
"This is great news for vulnerable Albertans and another big step forward in our vaccine rollout," Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Monday in a statement.
"We're ramping up our vaccinations as fast as the incoming vaccine supply allows. Every adult in Alberta will be offered a first dose by the end of June."
To reduce delays, Phase 2B will follow a staggered approach.
Starting April 5, all eligible Albertans born in 1957, 1958 and 1959 will also be able to book appointments with AHS online or through 811.
By the end of Phase 2B, all Albertans born in 2005 or earlier with any of the following high-risk health conditions will be able to receive the vaccine:
A missing spleen or a spleen that is no longer working
Chronic heart disease and vascular disease
Chronic kidney diseases requiring regular medical monitoring or treatment
Chronic liver disease due to any cause
Chronic neurological disease
Chronic respiratory (lung) diseases
Diabetes requiring insulin or other anti-diabetic medication to control
A weakened immune response due to disease or treatment
Anyone who is currently pregnant
Severe mental illness or substance use disorder requiring a hospital stay during the past year
Severe or profound learning disabilities or severe developmental delay
Organ, bone marrow or stem cell transplant recipients
A doctor's note or other proof is not required to get the vaccine in Phase 2B.
New vaccination plan for the homebound
Starting March 29, AHS will also offer the vaccine to an estimated 3,000 homebound Albertans eligible in Phase 1 and 2A.
The program is expected to expand to Phase 2B individuals in the coming days and to other groups as they become eligible.
The vaccine will be administered by AHS Public Health or Home Care, depending on the health zone.
"This will ensure homebound individuals, a vulnerable population who are at risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, are vaccinated as quickly as possible, with the resources and vaccine supply available," the news release said.
Daily caseloads, hospitalizations and cases linked to more-contagious variants of the coronavirus have been on the rise recently, a trend that last week delayed plans to further ease public health restrictions and elevated fears about a possible third wave.
Hinshaw warned last week that additional public-health restrictions could be necessary to reverse the trend and ease the possible impact to frontline health care.