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ONTARIO: Province to extend COVID-19 vaccine intervals after change in federal guidance

The province said it will soon share details on an updated vaccine plan that accounts for the new dosing recommendation as well as expected supply of the recently approved Oxford-AstraZeneca shots

TORONTO — Ontario will extend the interval between doses of COVID-19 vaccines to up to four months after a national panel recommended doing so, paving the way for an acceleration of the province's immunization effort.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province welcomed the updated guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization released late Wednesday afternoon.

The recommendation came two days after Ontario sought advice on dosing intervals in an effort to speed up its rollout, which has been criticized for being slow.

"This will allow Ontario to rapidly accelerate its vaccine rollout and get as many vaccines into arms as quickly as possible and, in doing so, provide more protection to more people," Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement.

The province said it will soon share details on an updated vaccine plan that accounts for the new dosing recommendation as well as expected supply of the recently approved Oxford-AstraZeneca shots.

Earlier Wednesday, Ontario said it plans to administer the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to residents aged 60 to 64.

Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the targeted use of the vaccine will help cut illness and death across Ontario.

"We know that from age 60 and up there are, unfortunately, more hospitalizations when someone gets COVID," she said. "By focusing in on those parts of our population that are more vulnerable, what we ended up actually doing is tamping down and curbing transmission."

Jones said the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot will not be administered through mass immunization clinics but through a "different pathway," although she did not elaborate on what that would be. 

Ontario said earlier this week that it was following the advice of the national vaccine panel that recommended against using the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot on people aged 65 and older due to limited data on its effectiveness in seniors.

Jones also said the government has signed an agreement with the province's pharmacists' association to have COVID-19 shots administered in pharmacies in the coming months.

Ontario has so far focused on vaccinating the highest-priority groups, including long-term care residents and certain health-care workers.

The province has said it aims to start vaccinating residents aged 80 and older starting the third week of March, though the timeline is subject to change.

Some public health units, however, have moved ahead with vaccinations for the general population, starting with people aged 80 and older. 

Those units are taking bookings for immunizations through their own web or phone systems as a provincial portal remains under development.

Ontario has administered a total of 754,419 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine so far.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday that the government should follow the advice of its science table which said last week that thousands of cases could be prevented if the vaccine rollout was based on neighbourhood as well as age. 

"It just seems logical to me that there's an opportunity there when it comes to AstraZeneca," she said.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the government must clearly communicate its updated plan soon.

"I'm just pleading with the government, if you want public confidence, then give us a clear transparent plan," he said. "Let us know that there might be adjustments, I think the public is going to understand that."

The province reported 958 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and 17 more deaths from the virus. 

There are 668 people currently hospitalized, including 274 people in intensive care and 188 on ventilators. 

Meanwhile, Ontario is expected to determine later this week if a number of COVID-19 hot spot regions will move back to its pandemic restrictions framework. Toronto, Peel, and North Bay remain under strict stay-at-home orders that are set to expire Monday.

The top doctors in Toronto and Peel both said Wednesday that they want their regions to re-enter the framework next week in the strictest "grey lockdown" category. 

Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen De Villa, said lifting the order is reasonable but precautions still must be taken. 

She says moving to the grey category, which allows retailers to open at 25 per cent capacity, is better than placing the city in the second-strictest red category, which allows indoor restaurant dining and personal care services. 

Peel's medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, said positive trends are reversing due to a growing number of virus variant cases and he’s recommending a return to the grey-lockdown zone to preserve the progress that has been made.

“This does permit a gradual reopening of certain sectors in our community,” Loh said. “I know it may be hard to hear for some, but our indicators still remain somewhat precarious and it makes it difficult to recommend any other level.”

-with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Denise Paglinawan.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2021. 

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press