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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

COVID-19 cases start to climb again as variants spread, in step with dire forecasts

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OTTAWA —
Canada’s chief public health officer says new COVID-19 cases are starting to tick back up after a month of decline.

The “moderate increase” at the national level noted by Dr. Theresa Tam is in keeping with models forecasting a spike in cases over the next two months unless strict public-health measures remain in place to combat more contagious strains of the virus.

“The concern is that we will soon see an impact on hospitalization, critical care and mortality trends,” Tam said Tuesday.

The uptick also lends new urgency to questions over how provinces will choose to allocate their various vaccines.

Guidance on the newly approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine appears split, with Health Canada authorizing its use last week for all adults but the National Advisory Committee on Immunization saying it should not be administered to people 65 and over.

The committee cited concern about limited data on how it will work in older people.

Alberta’s health minister said Monday the province will not give Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine to anyone over 65. British Columbia and Prince Edward Island are on similar courses.

“With clinical testing of AstraZeneca limited to those under 65, we will need to adjust our plan to look at a parallel track for some of these more flexible vaccines in order to cast the widest net possible,” the B.C. health ministry said in an email.

“When we get confirmation of the exact amount that P.E.I. would be getting from AstraZeneca, we would be targeting AstraZeneca to healthy, younger individuals who are working in certain frontline, essential services,” said Dr. Heather Morrison, chief medical officer of health in P.E.I.

No province has been spared from the increase in new variants circulating across the country, though several continue to ease anti-pandemic restrictions.

Modelling from the Public Health Agency of Canada showed a steepening rise in new cases starting late last month — and reaching 20,000 new cases a day before May — if public health measures weren’t tightened. Since that Feb. 19 forecast, restrictions in many regions have loosened as Canadians return to restaurants, cinemas and hair salons.

But Tam says more ground is being gained on “the vaccine-versus-variants leg of this marathon” every day.

“Canada is prepared, and Canada remains on track,” she said.

Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand said a half-million doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine — approved by Health Canada on Friday — will arrive Wednesday.

She said the first shipment of the vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India and formally called Covidshield is on the way, part of about 945,000 total vaccine doses slated for arrival this week.

In the light of the advisory committee’s recommendation, two experts say essential workers who are more likely to contract and transmit COVID-19 should be prioritized for immunization with those doses.

Caroline Colijn, a COVID-19 modeller and mathematician at Simon Fraser University, and Horacio Bach, an adjunct professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia, also say the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine could be better promoted by provincial health officials as a strong alternative to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

Oxford-AstraZeneca reported their vaccine is about 62 per cent effective at preventing COVID-19 while Pifzer-BioNTech and Moderna have said the efficacy of their vaccines is about 95 per cent.

But Colijn and Bach say the fact there have been no hospitalizations from severe illness and no deaths among those receiving the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine needs to be underscored because people awaiting immunization seem to be fixated on the higher efficacy data for the first two vaccines approved in Canada.

“If the AstraZeneca vaccine will prevent you from getting really sick that’s still a win for you,” Colijn said.

“I see this huge, huge benefit of vaccinating young people, particularly people with high contact, essential workers, sooner.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021.

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