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Quebec officials satisfied with AstraZeneca rollout despite empty vaccine centres

MONTREAL — Quebec's health minister said Thursday the province may soon expand access to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to more age groups as the government sought to assuage concerns over seemingly empty vaccine sites in the Montreal area.

MONTREAL — Quebec's health minister said Thursday the province may soon expand access to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to more age groups as the government sought to assuage concerns over seemingly empty vaccine sites in the Montreal area.

Currently, the AstraZeneca vaccine is available to Quebecers between the ages 55 and 79 at walk-in clinics around the province.

The province suspended its use in younger people over concern that the vaccine has been linked to rare but dangerous blood clots in a small number of people, but Health Minister Christian Dube said the province is considering revising that decision.

"Public health is looking at whether to change the age categories for AstraZeneca," he said, without specifying which groups could become eligible.

Health Canada reported Wednesday that it still considers the vaccine extremely safe and effective despite evidence it may cause blood clots in rare occasions. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended on March 29 that AstraZeneca not be used on patients under 55.

Dube also addressed reports that Montreal-area vaccine sites are empty and running far below capacity, saying the province deliberately opened more sites than it needed in order to train personnel and to be ready to scale up when more doses arrive.

"When we don’t have (enough) vaccine, which is the case in March, April and May, it’s normal to have the people we trained look like they’re not busy," he said.

However, Dube also acknowledged that some people may have a "certain hesitation" in taking the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Speaking in the hard-hit Beauce region south of Quebec City, he urged people who were eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

"If you have the opportunity to come get an AstraZeneca today instead of waiting for the next six to eight weeks for your next chance to get vaccinated, I wouldn’t hesitate," he said.

Earlier Thursday, Premier Francois Legault told reporters in Quebec City he's happy with the vaccine rollout, including at walk-in clinics offering the AstraZeneca vaccine. He said the province administered more than 67,700 vaccine doses Wednesday and more than 19,000 were AstraZeneca. 

"I'm very satisfied with the result," he said.

The premier said Montreal may be quieter because the province is focusing on getting other parts of Quebec caught up after prioritizing the metropolis in the initial weeks of the vaccination campaign.

Despite appearances, he said the province isn't getting enough vaccine to expand access to more groups, and he promised no doses would be wasted. Quebec is currently vaccinating essential workers, people with chronic illnesses and people over 60. Those 55 and up can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The province has administered more than 2.1 million of the 2.8 million doses it has received, although some are still in transit through the system.

Health officials reported 1,513 new cases of COVID-19 in the province Thursday and 15 additional deaths due to the pandemic. Hospitalizations rose by one, to 661, and the number of people in intensive care rose by seven, to 159.

New projections released by the province’s public health institute on Thursday suggested that hospitals in some regions outside the Montreal area could reach their designated capacity of COVID-19 patients in the next three weeks if the current trend doesn’t change.

The premier also addressed the controversy surrounding his decision to roll back some of the rules for outdoor mask wearing, after the initial health order was blasted by critics as confusing and arbitrary.

Legault had originally ordered that groups of two or more people from separate households had to wear masks outside at all times unless they were sitting down at least two metres apart.

The decision sparked criticism from the golf industry, some doctors and the political opposition. Some pointed out the rules meant that a romantic couple who don't live together needed to wear masks outside but not indoors.

On Wednesday, Legault specified that masks only needed to be worn in situations when it's difficult to keep a two-metre distance. He said the mask rule needn't apply for sports like tennis or golf, for romantic couples who don't live together or for a single person who has joined a family bubble.

Legault said he was doing his best to respond to an evolving situation and that he changed the rules as soon as he realized some of them were impractical.

"I’m not perfect, like all Quebecers," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2021.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press