TORONTO — Ontario received permission from Health Canada to extend the expiry of some doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine on Saturday, saving thousands of shots from potentially going to waste.
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the change means doses with an original expiry of May 31 can now be used until July 1.
"Health Canada has issued an authorization to extend the expiry date of specific lots of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from six months to seven months, following the review of submitted stability data," Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement.
Pharmacies and physicians offices had been rushing to administer thousands of shots this weekend ahead of their previous Monday expiry date to avoid wasting doses.
Ontario had been trying to redistribute a stockpile of 45,000 shots expiring on May 31 and 10,000 more going bad in June.
But quality checks held up the delivery of thousands of the shots, and many didn't reach their final destinations until Friday.
The head of the Ontario Pharmacists Association said Health Canada's decision is not unprecedented when it comes to evolving data associated with a new vaccine.
"It's good news," Justin Bates said. "Although I do appreciate this is going to create a lot more questions ... so people can continue to make an informed consent decision."
Bates said pharmacies in different parts of Ontario had ramped up efforts to get shots into arms and avoid wasting any doses, and those efforts will continue.
"It does give us a longer runway and reduces the risk of any (waste), which I think is a good thing and that's the silver lining in all of this," he said.
The province paused the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this month due to an increase in reports of rare but deadly blood clots. It started offering it again this week as a second shot to people who received the dose between March 10 and March 19 at pharmacies in Toronto, Windsor and Kingston, and at some primary care offices.
Approximately 90,000 people participated in an AstraZeneca pilot between March 10 and March 19.
The province said 148,972 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine were administered in the past 24 hours for a total of over 8.8 million doses issued over the course of the immunization effort.
Ontario reported 1,057 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and 15 more deaths linked to the virus.
Meanwhile, Ontario's COVID-19 science table said Saturday that the province can re-open schools safely on a regional basis while still limiting the risk of further virus transmission.
The new advice comes in response to Premier Doug Ford's request for input on whether or not the province should reopen schools as cases trend downward across the province.
The group said some regions could reopen based on the advice of local medical officers of health and continued adherence to public health measures.
"We believe that Ontario can re-open schools safely on a regional basis to mitigate the significant short and long-term harms arising from school closures, while managing the risk of virus transmission in this sector," the group said in a letter to Ford released Saturday.
The province closed schools in April as COVID-19 cases surged and Ford has said he wants a consensus on the issue from stakeholders before making a decision.
Ford wrote to those experts and education stakeholders Thursday, giving them a day and a half to respond to a series of questions on the possible reopening of classrooms for in-person learning.
The premier has said he doesn't want to rely solely on the advice of the province's top public health official, Dr. David Williams, who believes students should return to the classroom.
"I know very clearly where Dr. Williams stands,'' Ford said Friday. "But I want the scientists to weigh in. I want to make sure the teachers' unions weigh in. I want other educational workers to weigh in. I don't want to rush this.''
The science table said in Saturday's report that the closure may be harming some students' physical and mental health and reopening would allow schools to re-establish contact with teachers and peers.
"This deterioration is now evident in the form of increased ambulatory care use and hospital admissions, most poignantly for children and youth with eating disorders," the report said.
"We believe these mental health indicators represent the tip of the iceberg and that children and youth mental health will present significant long-term challenges during our recovery from the pandemic."
The science table recently said reopening schools could cause COVID-19 case rates to rise between six and 11 per cent.
But the group said Saturday it now believes the resulting case increases from re-opening schools would be small and most public health units feel that they can manage those increases.
"Schools that re-open should maintain their public health measures vigorously and build on the strategies they have already deployed to limit spread," they said.
The group also called on the province to use the summer to improve school ventilation and continue efforts to vaccinate students.
The letter from the province's science advisers was co-signed by 10 other groups including the Ontario Medical Association, The Hospital For Sick Children and the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press