Canada could begin loosening public health restrictions when more than half the population has received a first vaccine dose, the executive director of the country’s immunity task force said Monday as several provinces expanded access to COVID-19 shots.
Dr. Timothy Evans said the estimate is based partly on the situation in the United Kingdom, which, like Canada, made a decision to delay second doses in favour of wider coverage. The U.K. has vaccinated more than half its population against COVID-19 and has so far been successful in curbing a third wave, he said.
As for public health measures, “I think we may see an opportunity to dial those back when we get to 50, 60 per cent of Canadians vaccinated,” he told a House of Commons committee. But he noted that because fewer Canadians per capita were infected with COVID-19 than in the U.K., it may take more vaccination here — between 60 and 65 per cent. Currently, about 33 per cent of all Canadians are vaccinated with at least one dose.
Canada’s national vaccine expert committee weighed in on the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine Monday, saying it should be offered only to Canadians 30 and up who don’t want to wait for a different shot.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization said in an update that the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are still preferred due to “the excellent protection they provide and the absence of safety signals of concern.”
The age guidance is similar to that issued for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and comes as both are suspected of causing a new and very rare blood clotting syndrome.
However, the recommendations noted that as a single-shot vaccine, Johnson & Johnson may be suited for populations who are harder to schedule for a second dose or who don’t want to wait.
Plans to distribute the first shipment of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were put on hold after Health Canada learned part of it was made at a Maryland facility cited for safety and quality-control violations.
That did not stop several provinces from expanding their inoculation programs on Monday thanks to an anticipated increase in deliveries from another key vaccine maker. With shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine expected to roughly double from about one million to two million per week, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Nova Scotia opened access to new age groups.
Quebec and Nova Scotia lowered the age of eligibility for vaccines, while Manitoba announced that all Indigenous adults could now get a shot.
Ontario opened vaccine appointments to those 18 and over living in designated hot spots, although some residents reported difficulties in finding a spot. More than 73,000 appointments were booked in the first two hours after the province expanded eligibility.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said she was happy with how it was going overall and urged those experiencing problems to try again. “You will get an appointment, but I am sorry about the problems people are having now,” she told reporters.
Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada showed that the vaccines appear to offer a high degree of protection from infection beginning two weeks after inoculation.
The agency said that as of April 26, 2,274 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 at least two weeks after getting their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Data suggests about 7.1 million people were 14 or more days past being vaccinated with at least one dose by that date, meaning there were so-called breakthrough infections in about 0.03 per cent of people vaccinated.
Among those infected after vaccination, 203 people ended up in the hospital, and 53 people died. The agency said that the “percentage of breakthrough cases is small” and that detailed data is not yet available to fully understand the reasons behind them.
The expanded vaccine access is coming as several provinces are struggling to contain a deadly third wave of the novel coronavirus.
Alberta announced on Sunday it was suspending the spring sitting of the legislature because of record-breaking caseloads that are straining the hospital system, while Nova Scotia remains under a provincewide lockdown until at least May 12.
City council in Iqaluit, Nunavut declared a local state of emergency after the total number of active cases in the 8,000 person city rose to 81, while the Northwest Territories government announced it was closing schools in Yellowknife after eight cases of COVID-19 were confirmed at an elementary school over the weekend.
There was better news in Quebec, which announced last week it was easing some public health restrictions amid stable or declining case counts and hospitalizations. Most elementary students in the Quebec City area returned to in-person classes on Monday morning, while the curfew in Montreal and Laval was pushed back from 8 p.m. to 9:30, beginning Monday night.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021.
— With files from Mia Rabson, Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Shawn Jeffords
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press