Canada says third COVID-19 wave ‘critical’, panel expands use of AstraZeneca doses

OTTAWA (Reuters) -A surge in COVID-19 cases means Canada is at a critical juncture, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday, while an expert panel said AstraZeneca PLC’s vaccine could now be offered to more people.

The number of daily cases has doubled this month to 8,600 as a third wave rips across Canada and health officials said they could jump again to more than 15,000 by the end of April unless stricter measures were taken as new coronavirus variants spread.

“There are more contagious and more dangerous variants out there. The situation is critical,” said Trudeau, who together with his wife Sophie later received their first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“Vaccine doses continue to be the good news we all need in what has become a very tough spring,” said Trudeau.

Separately, Canada’s national panel on immunization said AstraZeneca’s vaccine could now be used in those above 30. Citing reports of rare cases of blood clotting it had previously recommended doses only be given to those 55 and older.

Shelley Deeks, the panel’s vice chair, told reporters that the public health benefits of inoculating as many people as fast as possible far outweighed any risks. So far, four people in Canada have developed the clots, but none were fatal.

Several provinces had already lowered the minimum age for recipients of the vaccine to 40.

British Columbia on Friday imposed restrictions to limit non-essential travel between three regions.

“The new variant strains are infecting more people and resulting in record levels of hospitalizations,” public safety minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement.

Trudeau, saying it was important to plan for the future, said Ottawa had struck a deal with Pfizer Inc for 35 million booster doses in 2022 and 30 million in 2023.

He also said his government had identified 100 federal healthcare workers who could be sent to help Ontario, which is struggling to cope with a worsening third wave and accuses Ottawa of not doing enough to tackle new, more highly transmissible variants.

Health officials told a briefing that if people cut the number of personal contacts by 20%-30%, the number of new daily cases could drop to around 4,500.

“We are still in a tight race between vaccines and variants,” said Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.

Canada has so far recorded a total of 23,822 deaths and 1,155,834 cases of COVID-19.

Reporting by David Ljunggren and Steve Scherer; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Mike Collett-White, Peter Graff

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