British Columbia will expand AstraZeneca vaccine eligibility to people over 40, extend current “circuit-breaker” restrictions through the May long weekend, and impose travel restrictions as COVID-19 cases begin to stretch hospitals to their limits.
The ban on non-essential travel announced today comes after months of government hesitation as travel was increasingly cited as a source of transmission.
The restrictions will limit non-essential travel between health authorities and into British Columbia on Friday. Hotels are being asked to cancel reservations for people from outside their health authority and police checkstops will enforce the rules.
Nine of the 19 designated COVID-19 hospitals have already implemented surge protocols and eliminated some scheduled surgeries and medical services to ensure staff are available for rising COVID cases. Five have taken similar steps to free up spaces in intensive care.
The move to expand vaccine eligibility to younger people is a sign of the strain the pandemic’s third wave is bringing to the health-care system. COVID variants are driving transmission among young essential workers, who are in turn infecting parents and older relatives more likely to require hospitalization.
“A single dose of AZ is going to keep people out of hospital,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said today. “We want to be able to target specifically the AstraZeneca we have to people 40 and above to try to address that hospitalization risk.”
Adults born in 1981 or earlier can now register for an AstraZeneca vaccine through their pharmacy. Alberta and Ontario announced Sunday that they would expand eligibility as well.
The province is also opening AstraZeneca clinics for eligible people in 23 communities with high transmission rates. Most are in Fraser Health and have high proportions of low-income and racialized essential workers.
Henry said the chance of a rare blood clot associated with the AstraZeneca vaccines is estimated to be about four in one million, a risk that pales in comparison to the risk of COVID-19 as variants drive transmission across B.C.
And after reviewing evidence from tens of millions of doses, Health Canada said Canadians of all ages shouldn’t hesitate to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, advice the National Advisory Council on Immunization is expected to echo in the coming days.
“We know that the benefits of this vaccine far outweigh the risk of this very rare blood clot,” said Henry. “We now need to target our use of this vaccine to support people being protected soon and now.”
The details of travel orders are not finalized but will include checkpoints on major roads, banning non-essential travellers and leisure vehicles on BC Ferries, and supporting the tourist sector to cancel and refuse bookings from people from outside their health authority. (The province has five regional health authorities. Information on their boundaries is here.)
After swift criticism of similar measures announced in Ontario Friday, Premier John Horgan said the B.C. restrictions don’t increase police authority. “This is for those who are recklessly flaunting the rules, not for those who are regularly going about their business,” he said today.
An average of 986 new daily cases were reported over the weekend, signalling early signs of a plateauing third wave.
But hospitalizations reached a record 441, with 138 people in intensive care. Eight people died over the weekend, including a two-year-old child.
And because patients in hospital lag new cases by a week or two, more hospitalizations could still be on the horizon.
Health Minister Adrian Dix stressed that there is still ample capacity for COVID and non-COVID patients across the province, but that certain hospitals are feeling the strain more than others.
That includes Vancouver General Hospital, where 13 surge beds — set aside for a rise in cases — are being used for intensive care. “The pandemic is keenly felt and impacts acute care hospitals across the province,” he said.
In the last week, some hospitals began targeted measures to allow surge beds to be staffed, such as cancelling some scheduled surgeries and moving non-COVID patients to hospitals in other parts of the province.
More measures could come in the next week or so if hospitalizations increase, officials said.
Vaccines are expected to have an incremental but positive effect on hospitalizations as early as the end of April, Henry said, particularly as people over 65 in age-based rollout gain immunity from severe illness. “Our immunization program is working, and it’s reaching people who are most at risk.”
As of today, 30 per cent of adults in B.C. have received at least a first dose of a vaccine, but 3.2 million remain to be immunized.
B.C. is on track to provide a first shot to everyone who wants one by July 1 and a second shot by September, vaccine lead Dr. Penny Ballem said.
Until then, officials stressed the importance of staying home, distancing when seeing designated friends outdoors and not travelling outside one’s community.
“We have the ability to level things off, and we’ve started to see that,” said Henry.