Newfoundland and Labrador is pausing its delivery of the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine to people under the age of 55 following guideline changes from the Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization.
In a unscheduled COVID-19 briefing Monday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the change will remain in place until more risk analysis data comes from the United Kingdom, where rare instances of vaccine-induced prothrombotic immune thrombocytopenia, also known as VIPIT, have occurred.
According to Fitzgerald, adverse reactions happen rarely, occurring in one in 100,000 to one in a million people.
Fitzgerald said adults over the age of 55 can still receive the vaccine, as VIPIT incidences have been reported at a lower rate among older age groups, and that vaccine is still effective in protecting against serious illness, hospitalizations and death.
First responders scheduled to receive the vaccine will have their upcoming appointments honoured, and will be offered the appropriate vaccine.
Around 4,600 people have received the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in the province, according to Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald said the change will not affect the province's vaccine rollout greatly, as the majority of doses in the province are from either Pfizer-BioNtech or Moderna.
"This pandemic has been rapidly evolving since day one. We have always relied on the best available evidence to [guide] our decision making. Evidence will continue to change and emerge, and we are prepared to adapt in response," she said.
When asked about how long the delay could last, Health Minister John Haggie said completing Phase 2 of the vaccination plan could be pushed by a couple of weeks in the worst-case scenario.
"I think there's going to be an adjustment," he said. "The impact of not being able to use AstraZeneca in the way that we had planned is still under analysis. It's effectively taking vaccine out of our hands in some respects … that impact has not been fully analyzed yet."
Remaining doses will be used
According to Haggie, there are 2,880 doses of the vaccine in storage across the province. A portion of those doses — around 750 — are set to expire this week, and will be used to vaccinate those between the ages of 55 and 69. The remaining doses will be used in the weeks ahead.
"This is still a good vaccine ... and these are very rare events that are happening," Fitzgerald added. "There may be some slight delays, but on the whole I think we're still in pretty good shape."
Watch Monday's briefing:
When asked what she would say to those who may still be skeptical of receiving the vaccine, Fitzgerald replied that the risk of COVID-19 outweighs the risk of getting vaccinated.
"When vaccines are tested, they use tens of thousands of people in their studies. But sometimes you can only see these rare events when you're giving the vaccines to hundreds of thousands or millions of people," she said. "The signal is being picked up because we've given so many doses of this vaccine."
If those eligible to be vaccinated decline the shot, Fitzgerald said they can re-enter the vaccination queue for immunization later on, when their age group becomes a priority group.
"It could be a different vaccine if we have more vaccines that are available, or it may be the AstraZeneca again. We've always still said you should take the vaccine that's been offered to you, but people still have a choice."
No new cases Monday
Earlier Monday, the Health Department reported no new cases of COVID-19.
That kept the active case count at two, with no new recoveries since Sunday. Nobody is in hospital due to the virus.
Almost 124,000 people have been tested for the virus in the province since March 2020, with 196 people tested in the past 24 hours.
Over the last two weeks, four cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the province.
Health authorities said the newest case, reported in Central Health on Sunday, is a man in his 40s and is related to domestic travel.
Passengers who travelled on Air Canada Flight 8996, departing Halifax and arriving in St. John's on Thursday, have been asked to arrange COVID-19 testing.
Prior to Sunday's new case, the last new confirmed case in the province was reported on March 24.
The number of active cases has plummeted since an outbreak of coronavirus variant B117. As of Saturday, the entire province has had restrictions eased and has entered Alert Level 2.