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Alberta begins rolling out AstraZeneca COVID vaccine for those 40 or older

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EDMONTON — Alberta is allowing people as young as 40 to get the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine starting Tuesday.

Tom McMillan, a spokesman for Alberta Health, says there are about 170,000 doses available and appointments will be booked for as long as supplies last. He says it's not clear when the next AstraZeneca batches will arrive.

AstraZeneca is one of a number of COVID-19 vaccines being administered, but the only one Alberta is making available to people as young as 40.

More than 70 pharmacies are offering AstraZeneca, including 26 allowing for walk-in appointments.

Alberta Health Services also has specific sites across the province, including two walk-in clinics.

Lowering the age eligibility means 575,000 more Albertans have a chance at being vaccinated — for a total of 2.3 million.

Ontario and Manitoba have made the same age change with AstraZeneca.

McMillan said Alberta reduced the age eligibility to 40 from 55 based on health data and earlier concerns that higher-age groups have been hesitant about taking it.

There have been reports of thousands of AstraZeneca appointments going unused in recent days. Alberta has received 270,800 doses of AstraZeneca and as of Sunday had administered just over 100,000 shots.

"We're making the decisions based, obviously, on the evidence available. That said, there has been some hesitancy in some groups to book appointments for this vaccine," McMillan said Monday.

"By opening up to (age) 40, we are balancing the evidence around safety as well as the goal of getting doses into people's arms as quickly as possible."

Vaccine hesitancy around AstraZeneca is due to reports of an extremely rare blood clot disorder in some people who have received the vaccine. There have been two cases in Canada — one in Quebec and one in Alberta.

In question period, Health Minister Tyler Shandro told the house that while the "adverse reaction" in the Alberta case reported on Saturday "is unfortunate, it doesn’t change the risk assessment."

“I was happy to hear that the patient was treated and is now recovering at home. It’s important for us to remember this blood clot disorder is extremely rare globally.”

He said AstraZeneca has been shown to reduce COVID-19 infections by 60 to 70 per cent, and severe outcomes such as hospitalization by 80 per cent.

There have been 1.17 million doses of all vaccines administered in Alberta, which has the highest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the country. There are more than 400 infections per 100,000 people.

Premier Jason Kenney has said the situation has become a race between the spread of COVID-19 variants and getting a critical mass of Albertans vaccinated.

The variants, now the dominant strain in Alberta, are far more contagious and have sent case rates and hospitalizations spiking in recent weeks.

Alberta reported 1,391 new cases Monday for a total number of active cases of 18,424. The positivity rate was at 11 per cent.

There were 460 people in hospital, 104 of them in intensive care. There were three more deaths for a pandemic total of 2,043. 

Kenney highlighted concern over the spread last week by twice reporting a cautionary tale of a child’s birthday party in Athabasca, Alta., that turned into a super-spreader event. Health officials could not confirm such an outbreak occurred and Kenney’s office later said he “misspoke. 

Facing questions from the Opposition NDP in the house Monday, Kenney said he had been given bad information.

“I was simply repeating information upon which I was briefed,” he said. “I have to assume, the Opposition should as well, that our senior public health officers speak accurately about these things.”

Also Monday, thousands of students in Calgary and in northern Alberta shifted to online learning because of rising infection rates. 

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said last week that Calgary students in Grades 7 through 12 would make the move to remote classes.

School divisions in Fort McMurray also announced Friday that students in those grades would be learning from home.

LaGrange said soaring infection rates have put schools under "operational pressures," sometimes resulting in severe staff shortages.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press