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Research raises questions over delayed second vaccine doses for seniors – Vancouver Is Awesome

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TORONTO — More questions are being raised about how long second shots of the COVID-19 vaccine can be delayed for seniors and other immunocompromised people.

The federal body that advises how vaccines be deployed said Thursday it’s reviewing a Vancouver study that found long-term care residents had a weaker immune response to their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than younger healthy adults. 

After supplies slowed to a trickle earlier this year, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization said provinces and territories can delay second doses by as long as four months. 

That’s instead of the recommended schedule that spaces out the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines by three to four weeks, and the AstraZeneca product by four to 12 weeks.

Committee chair Dr. Caroline Quach said Thursday that NACI is looking at the Vancouver research, which found a weaker antibody response among older recipients but did not measure whether seniors were more likely to fall sick or die.

She said the findings will be assessed along with data from Quebec and the United Kingdom.

“What is so difficult with this disease is that there is no correlate of protection. That means that the presence and quantity of antibody present does not mean protection, or lack thereof,” Quach said in an email to The Canadian Press.

“Based on all those data, NACI will see if exceptions to the extended interval are necessary, keeping in mind that we are managing risk at a population level: the more people are vaccinated, the more likely we are to stop transmission, which will also be protective for the most vulnerable who may not mount an optimal response.”

The Vancouver data, funded by the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, has yet to be peer-reviewed but adds to concerns about the rollout strategy of provinces including Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

Task force director Dr. Tim Evans said the findings underscore a need to monitor senior recipients very carefully after their first shot.

“The immune response is so complicated and we still don’t fully understand what are called the correlates of protection,” Evans said from Montreal, where he is director and associate dean of the school of population and global health at McGill University.

“The most important takeaway from this study is we have to be very vigilant in monitoring the followup for the elderly, or immunocompromised with respect to extending the vaccine dose beyond what’s recommended.”

Evans stressed that older people in both long-term care and the community are well-protected for many weeks by a single dose of an mRNA vaccine, but said there may be limits to how long some people should wait for their second dose.

He said COVID-19 vaccines have already been associated with dropping hospitalizations and deaths in Canada, but expected NACI may have to refine its advice for how they be used in various populations.

“We’ve got multiple vaccines, they all work a little bit differently and so we know that we don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said, adding that long-term care residents may be more vulnerable than seniors in the community.

“We’re going to have to get used to working with different approaches for different age groups with different vaccines over the coming months as the vaccine rollout continues.”

The director of geriatrics at Toronto’s Sinai Health said a delayed-dose strategy makes little sense for a population already known to have a less-robust response to vaccines. 

Dr. Samir Sinha said there’s already enough evidence for NACI to revise its advice, suggesting some urgency as he pointed to statistics that find 96 per cent of COVID-19 linked deaths are people over the age of 60.

“As a geriatrician, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable about the strategy of delaying these doses for older people and in particular, older people living in congregate care settings, and those who are highly vulnerable,” said Sinha.

Sinha acknowledged that NACI considers an array of factors in determining its guidelines and at the time of its March 3 decision, pressures included dwindling vaccine supplies, emerging variants and fears of a looming third wave.

Earlier Thursday, Health Canada’s chief medical adviser Dr. Supriya Sharma noted her agency – a separate body from NACI – approved the vaccines for use according to their respective labels.

She also said NACI’s advice will evolve as new science becomes available.

“I think it does make sense that we potentially have a more nuanced recommendation around that delayed second dose, but those conversations are ongoing,” Sharma said.

Principal investigator Dr. Marc Romney, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, said not only did his study find LTC residents produced lower levels of antibodies, the antibodies they produced were less adept at blocking the SARS-CoV-2 virus from binding to its target cells.

“You don’t want to be leaving a large segment of society that’s already borne the brunt of the pandemic vulnerable to infection, awaiting a second dose – that is the potential issue here,” said Romney, medical leader for medical microbiology and virology at St. Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care.

“Hospitalizations are increasing again. And we have seen some outbreaks in long-term care facilities where people have been vaccinated, which is also concerning.”

He and a research team co-led by Dr. Zabrina Brumme of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and Dr. Mark Brockman of Simon Fraser University analyzed blood samples collected from 18 long-term care residents and 12 healthcare workers.

They were taken in late 2020 and early 2021 before vaccination and compared to changes after participants received their first dose.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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Ontario hospitals may have to withhold care as COVID-19 fills ICUs

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By Allison Martell and Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Doctors in the Canadian province of Ontario may soon have to decide who can and cannot receive treatment in intensive care as the number of coronavirus infections sets records and patients are packed into hospitals still stretched from a December wave.

Canada‘s most populous province is canceling elective surgeries, admitting adults to a major children’s hospital and preparing field hospitals after the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs jumped 31% to 612 in the week leading up to Sunday, according to data from the Ontario Hospital Association.

The sharp increase in Ontario hospital admissions is also straining supplies of tocilizumab, a drug often given to people seriously ill with COVID-19.

Hospital care is publicly funded in Canada, generally free at the point of care for residents. But new hospital beds have not kept pace with population growth, and shortages of staff and space often emerge during bad flu seasons.

Ontario’s hospitals fared relatively well during the first wave of the pandemic last year, in part because the province quickly canceled elective surgeries.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario told doctors last Thursday that the province was considering “enacting the critical care triage protocol,” something that was not done during earlier waves of the virus. Triage protocols help doctors decide who to treat in a crisis.

“Everybody’s under extreme stress,” said Eddy Fan, an ICU doctor at Toronto’s University Health Network. He said no doctor wants to contemplate a triage protocol but there are only so many staff.

“There’s going to be a breaking point, a point at which we can’t fill those gaps any longer.”

In a statement, the health ministry said Ontario has not activated the protocol. A September draft suggested doctors could withhold life-sustaining care from patients with a less than 20% chance of surviving 12 months. A final version has not been made public.

Ontario’s Science Advisory Table had been forecasting the surge for months, said member and critical care physician Laveena Munshi. During a recent shift she wanted to call the son of a patient only to discover he was in an ICU across the street.

“The horror stories that we’re seeing in the hospital are like ones out of apocalyptic movies,” she said. “They’re not supposed to be the reality we’re seeing one year into a pandemic.”

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In COVID-19 vaccination pivot, Canada targets frontline workers

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By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada is shifting its vaccination campaign to target frontline workers, moving away from a largely age-based rollout as the country tries to get a handle on the raging third wave of the pandemic.

Canada‘s approach thus far has left unvaccinated many so-called “essential workers,” like daycare providers, bus drivers and meatpackers, all of whom are among those at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Provinces are now trying to adjust their strategy to tackle the surge driven by new variants.

Targeting frontline workers and addressing occupation risk is vital if Canada wants to get its third wave under control, says Simon Fraser University mathematician and epidemiologist Caroline Colijn, who has modelled Canadian immunization strategies and found “the sooner you put essential workers [in the vaccine rollout plan], the better.”

Initially, Canada prioritized long-term care residents and staff for the vaccines, as well as the very elderly, health workers, residents of remote communities and Indigenous people.

Targeting vaccinations by age made sense early on in a pandemic that ravaged Canada‘s long-term care homes, Colijn said. But now, immunizing those at highest risk of transmission brings the greatest benefit.

“If you protect these individuals you also protect someone in their 60s whose only risk is when they go to the store. … The variants are here now. So if we pivot now, but it takes us two months to do it, then we will lose that race.”

Data released on Tuesday from the Institute of Clinical and Evaluative Sciences showed that Toronto’s neighbourhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections had the lowest vaccination rates, underscoring the disparities in vaccination.

‘IT’S A JUGGERNAUT’

On Wednesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a plan to have mobile vaccine clinics target COVID-19 “hotspots” and high-risk worksites, although he stopped short of giving people paid time off to get the shot.

Karim Kurji, medical officer of health in York Region north of Toronto, characterizes the shift in vaccination priority from age to transmission risk as moving from defence to offence.

“It’s a juggernaut in terms of the immunization machinery, and turning it around takes a lot of effort,” Kurji said.

Meanwhile, officials in the western province of Alberta say they are offering vaccines to more than 2,000 workers at Cargill’s meatpacking plant in High River, site of one of Canada‘s largest workplace COVID-19 outbreaks. Provincial officials said in a statement they are looking to expand the pilot to other plants.

Quebec will start vaccinating essential workers such as those in education, childcare and public safety in Montreal, where neighbourhoods with the highest vaccination rates have been among those with the lowest recorded infection rates.

The people doing the highest-risk jobs, from an infectious disease perspective, are more likely to be poor, non-white and new Canadians, health experts say. They are less likely to have paid leave to get tested or vaccinated or stay home when sick and are more likely to live in crowded or multi-unit housing. They need to be prioritized for vaccination and their vaccination barriers addressed, experts say.

Naheed Dosani, a Toronto palliative care physician and health justice activist, said making vaccines available to high-risk communities is not enough without addressing barriers to access.

“The face of COVID-19 and who was being impacted changed dramatically. The variants seemed to take hold in communities where essential workers live. … This [pivot] is a step in the right direction and will hopefully save lives.”

 

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Aurora Ellis)

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Canada finance minister: Pandemic an opportunity to bring in national childcare

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OTTAWA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic and its damaging impact on women has underlined the need for a national childcare plan, which would also help the economic recovery, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Thursday.

Since taking up her job in August, Freeland has repeatedly spoken about a “feminist agenda,” and has said childcare will be part of a stimulus package worth up to C$100 billion ($79.6 billion) over three years. She will unveil details in her April 19 budget.

“I really believe COVID-19 has created a window of political opportunity and maybe an epiphany … on the importance of early learning and childcare,” Freeland told a online convention of Canada‘s ruling Liberal Party.

The budget is set to be a springboard for an election that Liberal insiders say is likely in the second half of the year.

Canadian governments of various stripes have mused about a national childcare program for decades but never acted, thanks in part to the cost and also the need to negotiate with the 10 provinces, which deliver many social programs.

Freeland said a childcare program would help counter “an incredibly dangerous drop” in female employment since the start of the pandemic.

“It is a surefire way to drive jobs and economic growth … you have higher participation of women in the labor force,” Freeland said. “My hope … is that being able to make that economic argument as well is going be to one of the ways that we get this done.”

Freeland, who is taking part this week in meetings of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and the International Monetary Fund, said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had told her they saw early learning and child care as a driver for economic recovery.

($1=1.2560 Canadian dollars)

 

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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