Ontario suspending use of AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 55 following NACI recommendations

Ontario reported another 2,094 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, as the number of vaccine doses given out in the province surpassed two million.

Currently in Ontario, only people aged 60 and older can receive the vaccine

Dr. Agnes Chu, right, gives Notrio (Joe) Wani his first does of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a mass vaccination clinic at Centennial College, in Toronto, earlier this month. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ontario reported another 2,094 cases of COVID-19 on Monday, as the number of vaccine doses given out in the province surpassed two million.

This comes as CBC News learned the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is recommending a pause on AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccinations for people under 55 for safety reasons, guidance most provinces said today they would follow.

The change follows reports out of Europe of very rare instances of blood clots in some immunized patients — notably among younger women.

The policy shift also comes as 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca are due to arrive from the U.S. tomorrow.

At a news conference Monday, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said the province is pausing the use of the vaccine for those under 55. He said Ontario will follow NACI's recommendations while it waits for more information on the vaccine. 

Williams added that the province is consulting with health officials in the United Kingdom, where the vaccine has been used extensively, to understand the risks.

"We want the most up-to-date data as we proceed," he said. 

However, he added the benefits of being inoculated to prevent COVID-19 far outweigh the risks that come with receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

"We still want as many people protected as quickly as possible...We have no concerns with those who have received it so far," Williams said. 

Speaking to reporters in Niagara Falls Monday, Premier Doug Ford said he wouldn't hesitate to stop the use of it for people below 55 year of age if there any "any issues." 

"I won't hesitate to cancel that in half a heartbeat...we just won't use it, simple as that," he said. 

In Ontario, only people aged 60 and older can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine through pharmacy and primary-care settings. 

Ford said there have been reports of blood clots in younger women in other places and he didn't want to "roll the dice" by using AstraZeneca on a group that may have a chance of developing complications. 

"I would rather wait if it means one or two months for Pfizer, Moderna and [Johnson & Johnson] than roll the dice on this AstraZeneca," he said. 

"The guidance from the federal government is that it is safe for people over 55," Ford said, clarifying that those who have already received the shot have not taken a risk themselves. "I'm talking about younger people taking it, 35 years of age and in that range, that's where the problem is."

Ford urged residents who are eligible to sign up and get vaccinated. In regard to lowering the age range for eligible residents, he said that comes down to vaccine supply. 

"I encourage everyone, 70-plus, please sign up, please go out and get your vaccines."

Just hours earlier, Health Minister Christine Elliott received her first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a pharmacy today.

Also today, Prince Edward Island suspended its use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for 18-to-29-year-olds. The province had allocated these vaccines for people within that age group who work directly with the public. 

On Monday morning, a spokesperson for the Department of Health told CBC News: "Appointments at pharmacies for AstraZeneca vaccine for those 18-29 are on hold pending anticipated further information from Health Canada and NACI (National Advisory Committee on Immunization)," the email said.

The email did not contain any information on why the vaccine was suspended.

April student break still on (for now) despite surge in cases 

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education reported another 215 school-related cases: 170 students and 45 staff members. There are 47 schools currently closed due to outbreaks, representing about 0.97 per cent of all schools in Ontario.

Speaking to reporters today, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that a scheduled break for students in April will go ahead, though he cautioned that could change based on advice from the chief medical officer of health.

The province previously postponed the usual March Break in an effort to limit community spread of the novel coronavirus among students and their families. Instead, students are currently set to have a week-long break beginning April 12.

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce making the announcement to postpone March Break on Feb. 11. On Monday, Lecce said the April 12 spring break is still on for now. (CBC News)

Lecce suggested that further public health measures could be implemented in schools when students and staff return on April 19. 

Today, the number of daily infections are higher than there were in February when the Ford government originally announced the break would be postponed. Cases are also higher than they were in mid-March when the break was originally scheduled for. 

Ford said his government will continue to monitor the situation to see whether they need to postpone the break once more. 

"I don't want to predict two weeks out," he said. "By the end of the week, we will have a clear direction that will still give people at least one week to 10 days' notice." 

Variants account for about 61% of all new infections, experts say

Today's new cases include 618 in Toronto, 368 in Peel Region, 277 in York Region, 132 in Ottawa and 104 in Durham Region.

As is commonly the trend, testing levels dropped over the weekend. Labs completed just 39,470 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and logged a provincewide positivity rate of 6.1 per cent, the highest it has been on a single day since January 19. 

The seven-day average of new daily cases climbed to 2,094.

Critical Care Services Ontario, a government agency that compiles reports on hospitalizations for hospitals and health organizations, said this morning that there are 409 people with COVID-19 currently in intensive care. Among them, 247 require a ventilator to breathe.

COVID-19-related admissions to ICUs are approaching the pandemic peak 420, which came in mid-January during the second wave of the illness.

"The numbers and changes are concerning as we move into the third wave," Dr. Williams said. 

Emergency physicians and infectious disease experts previously told CBC News that the steady rise in admissions to intensive care is driven partly by the increasing prevalence of variants of concern, particularly B117, which was first identified in the United Kingdom. 

The province said today that a total of 18,907 samples that tested positive for COVID-19 have also screen positive for a particular genetic mutation that indicates the presence of a variant. Some of those samples then go for further analysis to pinpoint which specific variant is present.

Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, a group of experts that advises the government on its pandemic response, projects that variants currently account for about 61 per cent of all new infections in the province. Some health units, including Toronto, Timiskaming and Peterborough, are already seeing more than 70 per cent of confirmed cases also screen positive for a variant. 

Public health units also recorded the deaths of 10 more people with COVID-19

3 regions see tighter restrictions

Stricter public health measures come into force in two regions today. 

Hamilton is going into the strictest grey "lockdown" phase of Ontario's pandemic response plan today, while the Eastern Ontario Health Unit enters the second-strictest red zone.

Today, the province announced Middlesex-London will be moving into the red-control level tomorrow at the request of the local medical officer of health due to concerning trends in public health indicators. 

But as of today, those who live in grey zones will be able to attend fitness classes outdoors.

Premier Doug Ford made that announcement Friday, when he also revealed that hair salons and other personal care services will be able to reopen in grey zones on April 12.

According to the Ministry of Health, public health units administered 50,453 doses of COVID-19 vaccines yesterday. A total of 311, 238 people in Ontario have now gotten both shots of either the Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccines.

The province has thus far received 2,358,965 doses of vaccines from the federal government. As of yesterday evening,  2,031,735 doses, or about 86 per cent, of Ontario's total supply had been used. The province expects another shipment of some 450,000 doses later this week.

Moreover, in York Region a drive-thru vaccination site opened at Canada's Wonderland today. A limited number of patients will be able to get vaccines at the Vaughan theme park by appointment only.

Two more mass vaccination sites are also set to open in Toronto, where people as young as 70 started getting vaccinated on Saturday.

With files from The Canadian Press