Please put a shot of AstraZeneca in my arm

OPINION: Ontario seems to be doing worse than the worst-case scenarios. We need to get doses out to as many willing people as possible
By Matt Gurney - Published on Apr 15, 2021
Premier Doug Ford receives the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine in Toronto on April 9. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Just a few weeks ago at TVO.org, I wrote about the anecdotes I’d been hearing of people who were outside of the targeted age range getting AstraZeneca doses at pharmacies lest vaccine spoil. Earlier this week, while on an essential trip outside my house at a local pharmacy — yes, buying potato chips for that night’s Leaf game is essential, dammit — there was an announcement that they had extra doses on hand, and eligible people should line up if interested.

I was very interested! Extremely interested. Ready, willing, able.

But I was not eligible.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has had a strange journey in this country. Once it had been approved, and after we had doses on hand, Canada authorized it for use only in those under the age of 65, because there was not yet sufficient data to determine that it was safe for the over-65 cohort. Shortly thereafter, once more data had been received and reviewed, the vaccine was approved by Canadian officials for all adults — everyone over the age of 18. But after reports of extremely rare blood-clotting events began to emerge from people who’d had the shot, mostly women under the age of 50, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization once again ordered age limits, but this time, the reverse of what it’d originally authorized — now only those over the age of 55 were eligible.

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Alas, this ruled me out. So even though I had the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time, I fell outside the approved age range. A few thrilled people immediately converged on the pharmacists’ area. I bought my chips — Ruffles sour cream and onion, at my son’s insistence — and went home unvaccinated.

It was frustrating on multiple levels. The Leafs lost, I didn’t get the jab, and, just a few days later, Health Canada announced that it had reviewed all the evidence regarding AstraZeneca and concluded that, even with the extremely rare clotting events, the benefits of the vaccine dramatically outweighed the risks. Considering that my hometown is currently ground zero for a provincial outbreak that seems completely uncontained, with hospitals rapidly filling up and harsher public-health measures expected imminently in a probably too-late attempt to avert disaster, this is nothing I hadn’t already concluded for myself.

I’m aware that the vaccine carries risk. Any vaccine carries risk, as does any medical procedure. Life entails risks. Leaving the house to get your son some chips for the hockey game entails risks, particularly now. But given the deteriorating situation in Ontario, where we seem to be doing worse than the worst-case scenarios, getting doses into willing arms seems like the greater good. Give me a little legalese spiel and then have me sign a form. And then stick the damn needle in my arm — and into the arms of as many other willing people as possible. Time is not on our side here. This is an emergency, and we should act like it.

This has been, all in all, a frustrating week on many fronts (not just the Leafs, but including them, sadly). The rollout of vaccines to more people in high-risk communities, is, to put it mildly, not going well. Every day, there are stories in the news of people who ought to have qualified being turned away at a vaccination site or finding themselves unable to book an appointment at all, because of confusion about the new rules. Supply issues are resulting in thousands of cancelled appointments. The pending Moderna shipment is delayed, again. And every day, the news from the hospitals gets worse.

We need to get people vaccinated. Now. Obviously, we should prioritize critical areas and essential workers, but we can’t afford to be picky. In an illuminating if depressing Twitter thread on Thursday, epidemiologist Issac Bogoch explained the issue of supply constraints for Ontario, where Pfizer deliveries are predictable and large, Moderna deliveries large and unpredictable, and AstraZeneca deliveries sporadic. But the AstraZeneca we have isn’t being used up quickly; it seems the bad-news stories of clots and the constantly shifting messaging have soured at least some of the public on the benefits of this highly effective vaccine. And that is, sadly, understandable.

It is, to repeat a word I keep returning to, frustrating. Ontario’s situation right now is serious. We have vaccine on hand, and despite very remote risks, this is a good vaccine. It works. It’s easily stored, transported, and administered. It will save lives if used, but it’s not getting used. I’d line up for a jab of it tomorrow, but I’m not allowed to, as I’m too young. Meanwhile, people who are my age, even if they meet criteria based on occupation or living and working in a hot spot, can’t get the appointments they need for Pfizer or Moderna because of either supply constraints or chaos — that really seems the word — in the booking process.

None of this is going to plan. None of this reflects the urgency of the crisis. None of it will be easily explained when, years from now, looking back, we wonder how this ever got so bad. It’s too late to avoid the third wave, of course. But it’s not too late to start making better use of what vaccine we have, today, in freezers, ready to go. We can make better decisions. We can do better than this. We have to.

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