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Fitzgerald downplays negative messaging on AstraZeneca

Dr. Janice Fitzgerald did not want to wade into specific remarks made by the leadership of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) this week, but she did reiterate her endorsement of the AstraZeneca vaccine when questioned during Wednesday’s live COVID-19 update.

“There’s certainly, I think, very good evidence to use AstraZeneca in our country right now, especially given what we’re seeing elsewhere, and I personally would not be hesitant to get the vaccine,” said Fitzgerald, Newfoundland and Labrador’s chief medical officer of health, “but as I said before, everyone has to make an informed choice.”

On Monday, the NACI revised its recommendations on AstraZeneca, saying those who can afford to wait for the “preferred” mRNA vaccines, namely Pfizer and Moderna, should do so.

The change in tone, and subsequent public comments by committee leaders, seemed to contradict the message being given by health officials across the country — that the best vaccine is the one you’re offered — and caused a storm of protest online about poor communications strategy.

“When you look at booking your vaccine, you have to look at your risk with that particular side-effect, of the vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopenia (VITT), and what the risk is of becoming severely ill with COVID-19,” Fitzgerald said.

VITT is a rare combination of blood clots and low platelets that so far has affected, by latest estimates, one in 100,000 recipients of the vaccine.

“We offer the AstraZeneca right now in the way that we feel most balances that risk,” Fitzgerald said. “People are informed and make an informed consent to have that vaccine when they do and they understand the risk. So, we feel where we are right now is where we need to be.”

She admitted vaccine hesitancy might be a concern, but added that the NACI does not set policy.

“Certainly it’s always a concern,” she said. “Whenever we have concerns about vaccines, whether it be side-effects or whatever the case may be, you always worry about vaccine hesitancy. What I would say is these vaccines have been approved. They are safe.”

Premier Andrew Furey offered an unprompted endorsement of the vaccine in his opening remarks Wednesday.

“The vaccines approved and being offered in Canada are safe. When my turn comes, I will be getting whatever vaccine is available to me,” he said.

A handful of Canadians have developed the rare condition over the past month, and at least three have died. One of the latest is a person in their 60s in New Brunswick, health officials announced this week.

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Canada is expected to have received 6.4 million doses of the vaccine by July. Newfoundland’s share of that is about 90,000 shots.

Recipients are advised to monitor for any of the following symptoms for four weeks after injection: shortness of breath; chest pain; leg swelling; persistent abdominal pain; neurological symptoms, such as severe and persistent headaches or blurred vision; or skin bruising or tiny blood spots under the skin beyond the site of the injection.
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