Ontarians who got a first shot of Oxford-AstraZeneca were cancelling appointments for second doses of that vaccine following new guidance from a national advisory group, pharmacists dealing with scrapped bookings said Friday.
The Ontario Pharmacists Association said the situation had many of its members worried their remaining stock of AstraZeneca could end up going to waste, despite the province maintaining that residents could still opt for that vaccine if desired.
"If people move away from AstraZeneca, it's going to sit in the fridges because nobody wants it. There's nothing we can do with it and I think that's a shame," association CEO Justin Bates said in an interview.
The cancellations flooded in after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization changed its recommendation on Thursday for people who got AstraZeneca as a first shot, saying it was better if they got the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna mRNA vaccines as a second dose.
The guidance was updated because of evidence of a stronger immune response with that mix of doses and a lower risk of rare but serious blood clots.
Ontario said it currently has approximately 160,000 doses of AstraZeneca available, with shots offered through pharmacies and some primary care settings.
Bates said pharmacies will continue to offer AstraZeneca to customers who want it, though he noted that many clients were expressing frustration over the new guidance.
"People are confused," he said. "They're angry and I don't blame them for being angry."
NACI's new advice did not change the Ontario government's position on AstraZeneca, with the province saying Friday that those who got a first shot of it could decide whether to get the same vaccine or a different mRNA shot as a second dose.
"If you had AstraZeneca for your first dose, you can safely take either AstraZeneca, Moderna or Pfizer for your second dose for strong protection," Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said in a statement.
"To ensure maximum protection against COVID-19 and the Delta variant, Ontarians should get vaccinated as soon as they can and book their second dose as soon as they are eligible."
The government reiterated that those who got one or two doses of AstraZeneca were well-protected. Hilkene added that Elliott, who got an initial shot of AstraZeneca, will take the first vaccine available when she books her second dose appointment.
Nonetheless, pharmacists said many of their customers with AstraZeneca appointments were now unsure of what to do.
Barbara Violo, owner of the Junction Chemist pharmacy in Toronto, said she received calls from clients seeking guidance.
"A lot of people are really stressed out about having to make the decision," said Violo, who was unsure if her pharmacy should still carry the vaccine moving forward.
Kyro Maseh, owner of a Pharmasave in Toronto, said he was frustrated over the shifting messages on AstraZeneca and the impact that had on his operations.
"I am constantly having to change my planning and my staffing and my scheduling," he said, adding that vaccine messaging should be as consistent as possible.
Bates said pharmacies will now need more supply of mRNA vaccines to meet what he expects will be increased demand for those shots.
"If the supply doesn't catch up, then it puts the pharmacists in a really tough spot to be able to accommodate everybody," he said. "And I think people are legitimately confused and frustrated over the constant changes of guidance around the vaccine."
Ontario stopped administering first doses of AstraZeneca in May over what it said was an increased risk of rare but serious blood clots. It had given out nearly a million doses of the vaccine by that point.
Those who got a first shot of the vaccine have to wait at least eight weeks before getting a second shot of Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca.
Ontario has administered more than 12.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far and is further expanding second-dose eligibility next week.
The province reported 345 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and one death linked to the virus. The Ministry of Health said there were 378 people in hospital with the novel coronavirus — 352 in intensive care.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Denise Paglinawan, The Canadian Press