Dr. Strang 'very comfortable' age-based vaccination remains best approach
Vaccine eligibility expands for people 80 and older, more age groups could be introduced in coming weeks
Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health defended the province's age-based vaccination rollout plan as the fastest way to build herd immunity, despite calls from advocates to prioritize those with certain health conditions.
Vaccine opportunities are increasing for people 80 years and older, with 2,600 more COVID-19 vaccine appointments opening for booking on Tuesday.
Due to low case numbers in the province, no one is being put at "substantive" risk by having to wait their turn for their shot, Dr. Robert Strang said at Friday's press briefing.
"It's not just the risk of severe disease, but what's your risk of being exposed in the first place? And in Nova Scotia, that's extremely low," he said, noting the province would adapt its plan if the epidemiology changes.
Under the current approach, the province is promising that all Nova Scotians who want a vaccine will have the opportunity to get one by the middle of June, with people around the age of 30 likely getting the jab by the end of May.
Strang said he's "very comfortable" the age-based approach is the best way to build population immunity, adding the province is on a "rapid trajectory" of getting more age groups vaccinated in the coming weeks.
"I can assure people in that 65- to 80-year-old group, you are going to get access to [a] vaccine very soon," he said, noting the age groups will be added in increments of five, starting with 75- to 79-year-olds.
Everyone who is currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine is encouraged to book their appointment. Strang acknowledged there have been long wait times on the phone line, and said the province will be setting up another call centre with nearly double the capacity by mid-April.
People with specific conditions, like cancer patients or people with disabilities, are not currently prioritized under Nova Scotia's age-based approach, making it one of the only provinces not to include that population group in the first stages of its vaccination plan.
Adding different streams of requirements for vaccines would mean having to set up different clinics — and ways to validate that someone meets those requirements, something Strang said would ultimately slow down the race to herd immunity.
"We have to take the approach that allows us to get the most number of people immunized, regardless of their health status, regardless of what work they do," he said.
While they may not be moving up the queue to get vaccinated sooner, Strang said building population immunity as fast as possible will help protect them against the virus.
"Many people with chronic conditions are in the older age groups anyway," he said. "So they're going to get vaccinated faster than if we try to divert to a range of different types of occupations and medical conditions."
Earlier this week, the province reversed its decision on vaccinations for police officers, moving them up in the vaccination schedule.
Standing by the decision to move them up the queue, Strang said he became aware through talks with police that many front-line officers are sometimes the first on scene for a medical event, putting them at risk of exposure.
"We're not treating them special in any way. We're treating them equivalent like we're doing with other emergency first responders," he said.
Ethics around holding back second doses
According to a COVID-19 vaccine tracking site, which uses data from the federal government, Nova Scotia has administered among the fewest number of doses per 100,000 people compared to other provinces.
Initially, Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended a three-week interval between first and second doses. In early March, NACI changed its recommendation from three weeks to four months.
Before the new recommendations, Nova Scotia held back second doses. The move was applauded when other provinces had to delay their second doses following vaccine supply shortages in January.
After NACI changed its recommendation, the province moved away from holding back second doses. But everyone who was initially promised a second dose within three to four weeks will be fully vaccinated by early April.
"When they gave their consent to be vaccinated, they gave it on the knowledge they were going to get their second dose 21 to 28 days later. We are honouring that consent, it would be ethically wrong to change it on them now," Strang said.
AstraZeneca clinics not at full capacity
As of March 18, people aged 60 to 62 are eligible to book appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine at any clinic that is not already full. Some clinics offering the AstraZeneca vaccine have been at less than 25 per cent capacity – there are currently about 4,900 appointments still available across the province.
While NACI has said people over 65 could get the AstraZeneca vaccine, it's also made a "preferential recommendation" that anyone who is at an increased risk of severe outcome should preferentially be offered an mRNA vaccine instead.
"We're not opening the AstraZeneca to those age groups ... the risk of someone, 70, being exposed is minimal [in Nova Scotia] and we're going to get them the preferred vaccine, mRNA, in the next few weeks," Strang said.
Vaccine eligibility expands for those 80 and older
As of 7 a.m. on Monday, March 22, Nova Scotians who are 80 and older, and born between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, can book an appointment to be vaccinated.
Until Monday, only residents who are 80 and older, and who were born between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, are eligible.
More pharmacies will be opening for people who are 80 and older to get their vaccines.
- Drugstore Pharmacy Antigonish, 26 Market St., Antigonish.
- Guardian Elmsdale Pharmacy, 269 NS-214, Elmsdale.
- Kyte's Pharmacy, 920 Cole Harbour Rd., Cole Harbour.
- Lawtons Antigonish, 133 Church St., Antigonish.
- Lawtons Sheet Harbour, 22624 Nova Scotia Trunk 7, Sheet Harbour.
- Lawtons Shelburne, 115 King St., Shelburne.
- Lawtons Yarmouth, 76 Starrs Rd., Yarmouth.
- Medicine Shoppe Port Hawkesbury, 708 Reeves St., Unit B, Port Hawkesbury.
- Pharmacy First, 266 Foord St., Stellarton.
- Sentrex Pharmacy, 110 Chain Lake Dr., Unit 3H, Halifax.
- Shoppers Drug Mart Digby (Evangeline Mall), 95 Warwick St., Digby.
- Shoppers Drug Mart Bridgewater, 421 Lahave St. #300, Bridgewater.
- Stones Drug Store, 491 Chebucto St., Baddeck.
- TLC Pharmasave Shelburne, 157 Water St., Shelburne.
- Wilson's Pharmasave Berwick, 213 Commercial St., Berwick.
Residents cannot book appointments through a pharmacy or physician. They must call 1-833-797-7772 or book an appointment online.
On Saturday, the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine to be administered in a primary care clinic will be given at the Truro walk-in clinic.
There will be more information on how the province will expand its range of access to COVID-19 vaccines in the coming weeks in a technical briefing on Tuesday.