By: Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Hamilton residents 40 years old or older will soon be able to get their COVID-19 shot at a pharmacy or through their primary care office.
Ontario announced Monday that the province is lowering the age limit on the AstraZeneca vaccine from 55 years to 40 years on Tuesday, meaning anyone born in 1981 or earlier can book an appointment at a participating site.
At a board of health meeting, Hamilton’s medical officer of health welcomed the news and emphasized the vaccine’s safety.
“We do have three very safe vaccines that are out there,” said Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, noting that blood clots associated with the vaccine are “very, very rare.”
“We all live a life that has some risks and they’re more common than the risk we see with the AstraZeneca vaccine.”
On April 14, Health Canada approved the vaccine for anyone 18 years and older, after a safety review of the vaccine in response to “very rare” blood clots experienced by some patients. (Provinces may limit the age in their own jurisdictions.)
After reviewing data from Europe, the U.K. and AstraZeneca, Health Canada found that the condition “may be” linked to the vaccine. However, the department maintains that the potential risk is “very rare, and the benefits of the vaccine in protecting against COVID-19 outweigh its potential risks.”
Health Canada subsequently updated warnings about the vaccine to provide information about the possible side-effects, their signs and symptoms and when to get medical help. “In the very rare event that someone experiences unusual blood clots with low platelets, there are treatments available,” said the department.
Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) is also reviewing whether to change its current recommendation not to give the vaccine to people younger than 55.
More than 50 local pharmacies were previously selected to administer the vaccines in Hamilton. You can get an appointment by calling the locations or visiting their websites. A list of participating pharmacies is available at covid-19.ontario.ca/vaccine-locations.
Not all the pharmacies were offering appointments right away, but more of them received vaccines in recent days.
Axis HealthCare Plus Pharmacy was “inundated” with calls at its locations on Barton Street East and Garth Street. Shafiq Lavji, the pharmacist on Barton, said he received 200 doses on Friday but was waiting for supplies, such as syringes and Band-Aids, before he could begin administering them. He expected to receive the supplies on Monday and book appointments for later in the week.
His daughter, Alysha Lavji, also a pharmacist, received both the vaccines and supplies last week at the Garth location. She administered one dose on Monday to prepare for the appointments she has booked all Tuesday afternoon. Her challenge came with navigating the COVaxON system that allows the province to collect data on vaccines administered.
“I wasn’t able to figure it out,” she said, calling the system “confusing.”
Alysha tried to call for help and was on hold for 35 minutes before the call was disconnected from the Rogers outage, she said.
“I just wish we had a little bit more guidance.”
The countrywide Rogers outage also affected Amit Patel’s access to the COVaxON system on Monday. The system has two-step authentication, and the Rexall pharmacist wasn’t receiving notifications to his phone. While Patel began giving shots at his Main Street East location on Friday evening, on Monday he asked people to book appointments for Tuesday onward and collected contact information in case the system was available later in the day.
Muhammad Ishfaq, pharmacist at a Shoppers Drug Mart on Upper James Street, said he has at least 80 people booked for an appointment on Tuesday. His pharmacy on Wilson Street in Ancaster has already vaccinated between 800 and 900 people, he said, and besides occasional “issues” with the online system, it had been a good experience so far.
“The majority of people are very motivated,” he said, noting only a few have expressed concern about the vaccine’s safety.
Health Canada says it will “continue to monitor the use of all COVID-19 vaccines closely and examine and assess any new safety concerns.
“Should any safety issue be confirmed, the department will take appropriate action.”
“The health and safety of Ontarians is always our top priority,” said a statement from the province. “Only COVID-19 vaccines that Health Canada determines to be safe and effective are approved for use in Ontario.”
In a release, Mayor Fred Eisenberger asked residents to follow public health measures while waiting for their vaccines.
“Please get vaccinated as soon as your turn comes up or if you live in a COVID-19 hot spot,” he said.
— With files from Joanna Frketich