TORONTO — Quality checks held up the delivery of thousands of soon-to-expire Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines in Ontario on Thursday, as pharmacists set to administer the doses expressed frustration over the delay.
A stockpile of 45,000 doses expires Monday, while 10,000 more expire at the end of June. The province said 12,000 doses were expected to pass quality checks on Friday and others were still under review.
A spokeswoman for the health minister said the checks were needed because storage data for some of the doses was incomplete.
"No dose will be sent that isn't deemed to be safe," said Alexandra Hilkene.
Ontario stopped giving out first doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month after saying it was linked to an increased risk of a rare but serious blood clotting disorder.
The province started offering second shots of the vaccine this week -- at a 10-week dosing interval -- to the first cohort of AstraZeneca recipients to use up the doses that expire soon. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu wrote to her provincial counterparts this week urging them not to waste any vaccines and offered federal help to reach that goal.
Ontarians who received the vaccine between March 10 and March 19 in Kingston, Windsor and Toronto are eligible to book second doses -- though just 162 of the original 325 pharmacies and doctors' offices that gave shots are participating this time around.
Approximately 90,000 people participated in the AstraZeneca pilot during that time frame. Many reported issues and frustration with booking second appointments.
About 26,600 soon-to-expire AstraZeneca doses had been sent out as of Thursday morning and another 5,000 were set to go out later in the day, the province said.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario's outbreak response co-ordinator, said about 7,000 second AstraZeneca doses had been administered over the last three days.
"I’m hoping that we won’t have any vaccine that gets to the expiry date," he said.
The distribution delay largely affected Toronto pharmacies, according to the head of the Ontario Pharmacists Association.
Justin Bates said five Toronto sites and those in Kingston and Windsor received doses earlier this week, but 99 pharmacies in Toronto were still waiting.
Those still set to receive doses were also informed their shipments would be smaller than anticipated, with more possibly coming on Friday, Bates said. Some were forced to cancel appointments and change staff schedules.
"It is asking a lot," Bates said. "I'm still confident we'll be able to mobilize and make every effort to get those shots in arms. The demand is high, but it is putting them in a tough spot."
Kyro Maseh, owner of a Pharmasave in Toronto, said Thursday morning that he had ordered 400 doses of the soon-to-expire AstraZeneca shots but still didn't know when he'd receive the shipment.
He said he had to reschedule appointments and beg volunteers to change their schedules as well.
"I am trying to do my part and help so that people could get the optimum protection, but I’m in the face of a gun now and I'm the one having to reschedule and explain to patients and get yelled at,” he said.
The tightened schedule left Maseh mulling whether he and his volunteers would be able to administer all the expected doses before they expire.
After initial booking headaches, some AstraZeneca recipients said they were able to successfully schedule their shots.
Sharon Saslove of Kingston, Ont., who had considered driving to Toronto for an appointment, received an email from her local pharmacy Wednesday night, confirming an appointment for Saturday.
Others weren't so lucky.
Luciana Fraccaro said she signed up for five pharmacy waitlists after learning the Toronto site where she received her first dose wasn't participating in the second-dose round.
As of Thursday, she hadn't heard back.
"I’m going to give up as I’ve heard that the pharmacies are going to prioritize their patients first," she said in an email. "I don’t think there’s anything else I can do. I feel sorry for the pharmacy staff."
Also on Thursday, the top doctor for York Region said the province had indicated it would be shortening the intervals between vaccine doses for all residents aged 80 and older.
Dr. Karim Kurji told a regional council meeting that the health ministry had shared plans to shorten the dose interval for that age group starting next week, with the intention of later doing the same for those 70 and older.
Vaccine doses are currently being administered four months apart, with some exceptions for Indigenous residents, those with specific health conditions and frontline health-care workers.
Ontario reported 1,135 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 19 more deaths linked to the virus. The data was based on more than 37,700 completed tests.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2021.
- With files from Liam Casey
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press