Sask examining four month wait between vaccine doses, considering relaxing restrictions

(File photo/Jayda Taylor)

Longer wait period would allow all residents to receive first dose by June, premier says

Saskatchewan is looking at joining BC in spreading out doses of COVID-19 vaccines, even as Canada’s chief science advisor warns against it.

This week BC, citing evidence from the UK and Israel, announced it would delay the period between first and second doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines. The vaccines were tested with doses three to four weeks apart, not three to four months. Preliminary data from other jurisdictions shows the first dose is effective for a few months.

By spreading that time out, more people can be vaccinated with a first dose, hopefully halting the spread of COVID-19 amongst more of the population.

That’s the thinking BC is using, and based on comments at a press conference Tuesday, Saskatchewan looks like it will follow.

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Tuesday that extending that gap in doses would mean all Saskatchewan residents who want a vaccine would be able to get one by June.

“That will really help to put the pandemic behind us,” he said.

“Gibing one dose to the vast majority of people by June … will help us prevent a potentially-devastating variant-fueled third wave and will also maximize population-level protection. The evidence is giving the second dose out four months later is perfectly safe and effective.”

While Shahab and Premier Scott Moe hinted that new national guidelines will include similar directives, not everyone is convinced. Speaking to CBC, Canada’s chief science advisor Mona Nemer called the increase in the interval between the first and second doses of vaccines a “population-level experiment.

“I think that it’s possible to do it. But it amounts right now to a basically population-level experiment. And I think it needs to be done as we expect clinical trials to be carried out,” Nemer told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics.

Nemer said it’s important to stick to the data from clinical trials so far and not “tinker with it” before more studies can be conducted. She said provinces that want to increase that interval should conduct proper clinical trials before doing so.

“For now, we simply don’t have enough data that tells us this is an effective strategy, particularly when we think that we have variants of the virus that are emerging that are not as well recognized by the vaccine,” Nemer said. 

“Partial immunity is something that people need to be very wary of. And it’s probably best to just vaccinate as recommended and as studied for now.”

The possible increase in the time between doses and the province’s effectiveness at getting vaccines in arms has Moe confident that some public health measures can be relaxed soon.

“The truth is vaccines are working. They are reducing transmission, they are reducing serious outcomes and that is very encouraging for all of us,” he said.

“Many people, and I’ve heard from many of them, they want to see us relax some if not many and all of the public health orders in place. What I would say to this is we are very close to making and finalizing those decisions.”

Moe said the first measure likely to be relaxed soon is the one pertaining to household bubbles. In December, residents were limited to only their immediate family, or a single, consistent single person, in their household. Private gatherings were limited to five people when not in a public place like a restaurant or a park.

“If we’re able to have access to these first doses … that really changes and pulls forward the conversations we can have with respect to which measures can be lifted at which times,” Moe said.

“It really gets down to the conversation of variants or vaccines and which are we going to have access to first in the general population,” Moe said.

“We’re doing everything possible to make sure it’s vaccines we have access to before we have broad-based access to variants. That’s why we’ve delayed lifting some of the restrictions in place.”

Moe said that restriction will be lifted once Shahab sees a few days of stable hospitalization and case numbers.

Further restrictions will be lifted later, he added.

“I am asking everyone in this province to hang tight,” he said.

‘We are going to start seeing things change, and change significantly. We are on the path to getting life back to normal as we know it, but we’re not quite there yet. Keep doing what you’re doing … to keep your family safe.”

Shahab stressed, though, that the province isn’t quite there yet. While numbers are trending downward, they’re still higher than they need to be. He wants to see new cases average below 10 per 100,000, and ideally below five. Saskatchewan, he said, is at 11.8. Some areas in the south are below the five per 100,000 mark, though, he said, and areas such as the north and far north are also declining after trending higher for longer.

He said lifting restrictions will also be based on ensuring testing numbers stay high and hospitalizations remain manageable. He said his team also monitors how the virus is transmitted.

“Irrespective of what the strain is … all COVID strains are preventable by the simple measures we need to continue,” Shahab said.

Those measures are keeping our distance, wearing a mask in public, getting tested and staying home when sick.

“We have to continue (those four measures) as our vaccination program pics up over the next few weeks and months.”

Shahab isn’t the only one preaching the importance of continuing those measures to keep people safe.

Canada’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said the same thing in her March 2 remarks.

“On the hopeful side of the “Vaccines versus Variants” leg of this marathon, we are gaining more ground everyday. Last week Health Canada authorised two additional safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. We now have four different COVID-19 vaccines, with unique advantages, but all contributing to the reduction of severe COVID-19 illness and death in Canada,” she said.

“Smaller provinces in the Atlantic region show us that after many months of strong control, the situation can quickly get out of hand once more contagious variants are introduced. By the same measure, these provinces demonstrate that quick, strong public health action is the best way to regain control.

“Aiming for the fewest interactions with the fewest number of people, for the shortest time, at the greatest distance possible is how we can all contribute our personal best to limit the spread of COVID-19, while vaccine programs continue to expand to protect all Canadians.”