Don Martin: Vaccine hesitancy spreads as provinces hit the AstraZeneca pause button
OTTAWA -- The original public health message from just five or six weeks ago was short, simple and effective. Vaccines are the gateway to a near-normal summer and the best vaccine is the first one available.
But like everything else about COVID-19 in Canada, the only constant is inconsistency and the only consistency is confusion.
So now, as we still ride high on the third pandemic wave, comes an almost unfathomable development – entire provinces are pausing the use of AstraZeneca.
Ontario leads several provinces, with the other premiers expected to follow within days, to stop initial AstraZeneca injections just as another large shipment arrives for distribution with tens of thousands of doses in storage and set to expire.
It was three short months ago that AstraZeneca was declared worthy of Canadian injection by Health Canada after six months of pondering its safety.
Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Nova Scotia have stopped first doses of AstraZeneca and, if this trend hardens, seem likely to refuse all doses before the month is out. While most of the provinces cited concerns about supply, vaccine-hesitant Ontario pointed to the risk of rare blood clots.
All this is being done out of an "abundance of caution" by top health officials such as Ontario’s David Williams, who thinks chasing a golf ball through the forests and fields is too dangerous while jammed garden centres are an acceptable risk.
Now that I’ve got that personal vent out of my system, a conflict of interest declaration. I am one of the 59,999 out of every 60,000 AstraZeneca recipients who has not experienced a blood clot in the brain after getting a first dose.
Furthermore, I would drive to Thunder Bay tomorrow to get one of the 50,000 AstraZeneca doses Ontario has decided to leave in storage until they expire.
And, because I so rarely acknowledge positive behaviour by politicians, let’s give credit to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the other party leaders for waiting their turn, taking the AstraZeneca needle for the cameras and pledging to take the second shot when it’s available.
But public health officials seem to have lost their way in a realistic AstraZeneca cost-benefit risk assessment.
The current advertising blitz by the government of Canada uses some humorous sketches to underline the fact that COVID-19 cannot be defeated by half measures.
Yet the provinces are doing precisely that with the tentative two-step of going overkill with a cease-and-desist on AstraZeneca injections.
Perhaps now is the moment to switch gears, in keeping with the consistently inconsistent theme of Canada’s dealings with the coronavirus.
It could be time to showcase the public joy of mask-less London shopping and pub crawls, a British reopening mainly fuelled by the AstraZeneca vaccine, although people also received the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
Perhaps we should focus on the eager enthusiasm of young people lined up to get any vaccine before sunrise only to line up again the next morning, as my daughter has done, if they’re turned away.
And it goes without saying, but bears repeating and repeating, that the risk of blood clots from the vaccine is considerably lower than the perils of driving to your local vaccination site.
If nothing else, let Canadians decide what level of risk they’re willing to tolerate. Open up AstraZeneca-only clinics, make sure everyone understands the remote risk and let Canadians vote with their exposed arms.
Left on its own, the current cross-Canada blast of anti-AstraZeneca messaging borders on fearmongering and boosts the fear factor in those wavering with vaccine hesitancy.
This is the moment to play hardball on selling vaccines, not to soften the public resolve with safety concerns which are a tiny fraction of the danger posed by the virus itself.
It’s also worth repeating that every AstraZeneca vaccine that expires in storage could become a virus victim gasping for air in a hospital bed.
Let’s get back to the original vaccine message that ANY approved vaccine can calm the third wave, curb overcrowded hospitalization and give Canada a near-normal summer.
That leaves only one question in my mind: Where can I get that second AstraZeneca shot before it expires?
That’s the bottom line.