'It doesn't help reassure people': Ontario's decision to pause first dose of AstraZeneca adds more confusion to a confusing situation

·3-min read

Now that Ontario is hitting the pause button on the first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the second province to do so, many who’ve received the shot are left in the dark as to what to do next.

The news comes after recent comments made by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) that mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna were “preferred” over the viral vector-based ones from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca shot. Though rare, AstraZeneca is showing risks of blood clotting, known as Vaccine-Induced Immune Thrombotic Thrombocytopenia (VITT), which is now estimated to impact one in 55,000 in Canada.

There’s been at least 12 confirmed cases of VITT out of more than two million doses distributed so far. Three women have died from the condition.

Alberta was the first province to halt distribution of the vaccine, as a result of supply issues.

Health officials are still waiting on research out of the UK about whether it’s safe to administer a different vaccine for the second shot.

Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says this shift in distribution is a result of the rapidly changing circumstances. Compared to recent months, Canada now has access to different vaccines, and more data around the risks of blood clotting from the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“We have options right now, so it makes sense, based on the knowledge that we have to, at least for first doses, to use Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” she says. “If we had no alternatives coming in, the risk of dying from VITT is a lot less than the risk of dying COVID. But we do have a choice now.”

Ontario creating more confusion with AstraZeneca vaccine pause

Isaac Nahon-Serfaty is an associate professor of communication, with a focus on health communications, at the University of Ottawa. He says that while NACI’s statement about preferred vaccines was accurate, the lack of coordinated communication between Ontario and the federal government only leads to more confusion to an already confusing situation. Ultimately this could impact people’s decision to take the vaccine in the first place.

“It doesn’t help to reassure people, particularly those who are hesitant to take the vaccine,” he says. “Health Canada approved the AstraZeneca vaccine and maybe they’ll change that. So why would the biggest province in Canada then decide to make this announcement without at least coordinating it with the federal government?”

Nahon-Serfaty says Canadians should expect the vaccine rollout to continue to be a fluid and dynamic situation.

“We don’t have a final word yet about this pandemic,” he says. “Governments will adapt and change their positions depending on how things evolve. Not knowing and uncertainty is the new normal. The role of communication is to reduce uncertainty or be as transparent as you can be to reduce uncertainty. But sometimes the government and even experts contribute to the confusion instead of guiding people to make rational choices.”